INTERVIEW: Health risks should be included in climate negotiations, WHO official says at COP27

Ashraf Amin , Tuesday 8 Nov 2022

The World Health Organization (WHO) has opened its pavilion at 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) by unveiling a sculpture that symbolises the impact of climate change on human health.

Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt
High-Level opening of the COP27 Health Pavilion at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on 8, November 2022. (Photo courtesy of WHO official website)


Maria Neira, director of the Public Health and Environment Department at the WHO and Head of the delegation for COP27, says it is time to highlight the health risks of greenhouse gas emissions and to push for more action to reduce emissions.


Ahram Online: Why is the WHO keen to participate in COP27?

Maria Neira: We worked with British artist Victoria Pratt to create a sculpture that has the shape of lungs and the bronchioles, it also resembles the branches of trees.

When you touch the sculpture, you feel weak pulses, which reflects how this person is in pain and suffering. That sculpture was designed in the UK, constructed in Beirut by using spare car parts and assembled in Sharm El-Sheikh. All that process happened in two weeks.

We tried through this sculpture to highlight the connection between climate change and our health. We want to remind politicians and those who fail to take decisions on how to fight the causes of climate change that whatever decision they take is having an impact on our lungs and our health.

Till now the narrative about climate change has been about the negative impacts on polar bears or the glaciers of the planet.

What we are trying to do is to focus on the impact of climate crises on our lungs and health with the hope to provoke more action and faster decisions to reduce emissions. We also plan to show this same sculpture at the next COP in the UAE.

AO: What is the data on the effects of pollution on health?

MN: One of the dramatic figures that are unacceptable is the annual 7 million premature deaths due to exposure to air pollution, which also afflicts millions of people with diseases and costs trillions of dollars in health expenditures for chronic diseases. It is also time to include the health argument in climate negotiations at the level it really deserves.

AO: What is the WHO doing to raise awareness about air pollution?

MN: For us, pollution is the new tobacco. It is a battle that we are fighting as strongly as we did and are still doing with tobacco. Three years ago, the WHO organised the first conference on air pollution, bringing evidence to all politicians on what it represents.

We have issued standards on air quality for five pollutants. We want all countries to endorse these standards on air quality. We also recommended a transition to cleaner sources of energy and the adoption of sustainable transport.

Every two years we produce a report about the global situation of air pollution per country and how many lives are affected. Many big cities around the world, unfortunately, have problems with air pollution.

AO: How does breathing polluted air impact the body?

MN: When air is contaminated with tiny elements and oxides, it passes from your lung to the blood and then to any part of the body. It can pass through the placenta and affect the brain development of a foetus.

AO: What is your position on the calls for people to turn vegan to save the planet?

MN: The contribution of diet to greenhouse gas emissions is a real one, and switching to a plant-based diet instead of meat consumption would have a positive impact on the planet. A large percentage of the world's population still relies on protein intake from animals.

I think we should strengthen efforts to reduce the consumption of red meat and stop processed food for the sake of our health first. There are many sources of air pollution that we need to look at like the combustion of fossil fuels.

AO: What is your message to Egyptians concerning COP27?

MN: People should monitor air quality and know the health impacts of air pollution. They should follow the COP negotiations and push their politicians to be more ambitious on the level of climate decisions. 

AO: What are the WHO recommendations for the COP negotiators?

MN: We want them to stick to the Paris agreement recommendation of limiting global warming to below 1.5C, to accelerate the transition to clean sources of energy, and to support countries in their adaptation plans. They should accelerate the transition to sustainable food systems and better healthcare facilities. 

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