The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) welcome the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change report, produced by leading experts from academic institutions and UN agencies dedicated to monitoring the global health impacts of climate change. 

The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change 2021 report reveals the increasing impacts of climate change on health being felt in every region of the world, and how they are exacerbating existing health inequities. It also highlights that, as in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, international governments are failing to deliver an equitable response to climate change.

In a UK policy briefing published alongside the global report, RCOG, RCPCH and UKHACC highlight three areas for urgent government action to protect child, fetal and maternal health:

  • Stronger air quality targets
  • Heatwave plans that fully consider and address the needs of pregnant women and children
  • An end to all government subsidies for fossil fuels 

The briefing shows the urgency of action to ensure clean air for everybody. In 2019, 21,000 premature deaths in the UK – four percent of all UK deaths – were attributable to emissions of a harmful air pollutant, PM2.5, from sources of human activity. 

The UK Government must adopt ambitious air quality standards informed by World Health Organization guidelines to protect the health of current and future generations. Current UK limits for some pollutants are now five times weaker than those recommended by the WHO, and, on Wednesday 20th October, the Government rejected an amendment to the Environment bill designed to strengthen these legally binding targets. 

Pregnancy is a critical window for exposure to air pollution, with prenatal exposure linked with adverse pregnancy outcomes including low birth weight and pre-term birth. Air pollution has been linked to increased risk of asthma and impaired lung function and growth in children. 

RCOG, RCPCH and UKHACC are also calling for heatwave plans across all nations of the UK which fully consider and address the evidence of the adverse impacts in pregnancy. Climate change has led to an increase in extreme heat events in the UK in recent years, with the briefing stressing the need for greater adaptation measures including strong heatwave plans and greater public awareness about coping with heat. Very young children are especially vulnerable to heat-related deaths, and there is a clear association between heat exposure during pregnancy and poorer birth outcomes.  

The combustion of fossil fuels contributes significantly to both climate change and air pollution in the UK, with significant known impacts on health. The UK currently ranks joint-lowest of all G20 countries for its fossil fuel funding practices, and is not expected to meet its phase-out requirements. While the UK Government has announced its ambition to produce all electricity from “low carbon sources” by 2035, has shared plans to invest more in renewable energy development as part of its newly published Net Zero Strategy, and has previously committed to ending taxpayer support for overseas fossil fuel projects “as soon as possible”, a date for the universal withdrawal of taxpayer support for fossil fuels has not yet been set. Stronger action must be taken to encourage a just transition away from fossil fuels, with funds redirected towards subsidies for renewable energy and upgrading home insulation across the UK.

While the Lancet Countdown warns that warming of 1.5°C on pre-industrial temperatures is now inevitable, and current commitments would lead to catastrophic warming of 2.4°C, a better future of economic and environmental sustainability, improved health and reduced inequities is still possible if decision makers show ambition and leadership at COP26.

Dr Ranee Thakar, RCOG Senior Vice President for Global Health, said:
“The body of evidence illustrating the health harms of air pollution is unequivocal. Stronger limits and actions to lower emissions must be implemented without delay. 

 “In the UK, women and children from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, or who live in more deprived communities, experience a disproportionate burden of health impacts from air pollution and the increasing risks of extreme heat. Action and research must include a focus addressing this burden, and take place in collaboration with the people and communities affected. 

“The climate crisis directly and indirectly impacts the health of women and girls across the world. Every opportunity must be taken at COP26 in Glasgow next month to ensure that work towards the Paris Agreement goals is equitable, with women and girls involved at every stage as we work towards limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.”

Dr Camilla Kingdon, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said:
“A recent UNICEF report showed that the impacts of the climate crisis are putting approximately 1 billion children around the world at risk. Children and young people are especially vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution, and exposure to poor air quality has lifelong implications for an individual’s potential. Action is needed right now to make the UK – and indeed the planet – a safer place for every child and young person.”

Dr Elaine Mulcahy, Director of UK Health Alliance on Climate Change said:
“The Lancet Countdown is a stark reminder of the harsh reality that climate change is placing a huge burden on health and exacerbating health inequalities. It should be another wake up call to government that it needs to take meaningful action to protect health. Too many people, including children, are already suffering serious ill health and death as a direct consequence of air pollution and extreme heat. The UK must adopt air quality standards and adaptation measures that puts an end to this. We also need to see a commitment to stop subsidies for fossil fuel exploration, extracting and sales, with greater support for climate-friendly schemes. Promises are not enough – we need to see action.”

Read the full Policy Brief for the UK

Full report: The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change