Excerpts from the 2020 Lancet Countdown Report on Health and Climate Change

Prepared by Kim Perrotta MHSc, December 12, 2020

Urgent Action is Needed on Climate Change

The fifth Lancet Countdown Report on Health and Climate Change was released on December 3, 2020.  There were two dominant messages in this report:

  • Unless urgent action is taken, climate change will increasingly threaten global health, disrupt lives and livelihoods, and overwhelm healthcare systems; and
  • Significant health benefits can be gained for populations around the world if we take this moment to prevent both, future pandemics and further climate change, by investing in renewable energies, healthy and sustainability transportation systems, and sustainable agriculture.

The report notes that despite commitments from 195 countries to limit global warming to “well below 2°C” as part of the Paris Agreement five years ago, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have continued to rise steadily, resulting in 1.2°C of global warming. In fact, the five hottest years on record have occurred since 2015.

To limit global warming to 1.5°C and well below 2°C, countries must collectively cut GHG emissions from the current level of 56 billion tonnes (Gt) per year to 25 Gt by 2030. This decrease will require a 7.6% reduction every year. This will require increasing current levels of ambition by a factor of five.

Climate Health Risks are Growing on Many Fronts

The health risk indicators used in these annual reports demonstrate that the adverse impacts of climate change on health are growing on many fronts.  The report estimates that:

  • 296,000 people globally died prematurely in 2018 because of extreme heat;
  • 302 billion work hours were lost in 2019 due to extreme heat; 103 billion hours more than in 2000;
  • in 114 countries, there was an increase in the number of days people were exposed to very high or extremely high risk of danger from wildfires in 2016–19 compared with 2001–04;
  • in 2018, the global land surface area affected by excess drought was more than twice that of a historical baseline;
  • from 1990 to 2019, the long-term, increasing trends in the number of weather-related disasters were accompanied by an increase in the number of people affected by these disasters in countries where health-care expenditure had reduced or had minimally increased;
  • changing climatic conditions are increasingly suitable for the transmission of numerous infectious diseases;
  • although the global food system still produces enough to feed a growing world population, the global number of undernourished people is projected to increase to more than 840 million by 2030;
  • global food security is threatened by rising temperatures and increases in the frequency of extreme events; global yield potential for major crops declined by 1.8–5.6% between 1981 and 2019; and
  • without intervention, between 145 million people and 565 million people living in coastal areas today will be exposed to, and affected by, rising sea levels in the future.

Climate Action Promises Significant Health Co-Benefits

The climate mitigation indicators identify significant health co-benefits to be gained from actions needed to fight climate change. The report estimates that:

  • More than 1 million deaths occur every year as a result of air pollution from coal-fired power plants, which are one of the most significant sources of GHGs.  The complete phase-out of coal promises to prevent 1 million premature deaths each year.
  • The food system is responsible for 20–30% of global GHG emissions, most of which originate from meat and dairy livestock. Ruminant livestock are responsible for 56% of total agricultural emissions and 93% of all livestock emissions globally. This proportion represents a 5.5% increase in the per-capita emissions from beef consumption between 2000 and 2017. Unhealthy diets are becoming more common worldwide, with excess red meat consumption contributing to some 990,000 deaths per year. The reduced consumption of red meat would save many lives each year while cutting GHGs.

These indicators also indicate that progress has been made in several key sectors:

  • From 2010 to 2017, the average annual growth rate in renewable energy capacity was 21%. Renewable energy provided 11.5 million jobs in 2019, a 4·5% rise from 2018. Although still employing more people overall than the renewable energy industry, employment in fossil fuel extraction declined by 3% from 2018 to 2019.
  • The use of electricity for road transport rose by 18.1% from 2016 to 2017, and the global electric vehicle fleet increased to more than 5.1 million vehicles in 2018 (a rise of 2 million vehicles in only 12 months.
  • In 2017, the health-care sector was responsible for approximately 4.6% of global GHG emissions, a rise of 6.1% from 2016.  In the UK, the National Health Service has committed to delivering a net-zero health service as soon as possible. Since 1990, it has reduced GHG emissions associated with healthcare by 57%.
  • Health institutions have committed to divesting more than $42 billion worth of assets from fossil fuels.

Climate Solutions will Pay for Themselves Many Times Over

The report notes that climate solutions will pay for themselves many times over when all costs are included.  It notes that:

  • In 2019, 236 climate-related extreme events were recorded, with absolute economic losses totaling $132 billion.
  • The global cost of heat-related deaths increased from 0.23% of the Gross World Product in 2000 to 0.37% in 2018.
  • By 2015, the heat-related reduction in labour capacity resulted in earnings losses equivalent to an estimated 3.9–5.9% of GDP in the lower-middle-income countries.
  • For a pathway consistent with 1.5°C of warming this century, annual investments must increase to $4·3 trillion by 2030, with investment in renewable electricity, electricity networks and storage, and energy efficiency. 
  • Evidence suggests that being more ambitious than current climate policies by limiting warming to 1.5°C by 2100 would generate a net global benefit of US$264–610 trillion (3.1–7.2 times the size of the global economy in 2018). The economic case of expanding ambition is further strengthened when the benefits of a healthier workforce and reduced health-care costs are considered.


Watts Nick et al.  2020. The 2020 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: responding to converging crises.  Review.  The Lancet. December 2020. https://www.lancetcountdown.org/2020-report/