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Paris climate summit 2015

WHO warns China that climate change could undo decades of advances in health

Tens of millions of Chinese at risk from higher temperatures and flooding

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 November, 2015, 12:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 2:48pm

The World Health Organisation has called on Beijing to review the impact of climate change following a new study that says rising temperatures could undo decades of progress in social and health development for tens of millions in China.

The climate changes projected include heavier rainfall, intense heatwaves, and water and food insecurity.

The agency made its appeal just days before world leaders are to meet in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Recognising the problem is only the first step, it is also necessary to do evidence-based assessments of all of the health risks, and identify the most effective interventions to control them,” said Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, team leader of climate change and health with the organisation.

The agency’s report – “Climate and Health Country Profiles, China” – projects the annual average temperature will rise by about 6.1 degrees Celsius between 1990 and 2100 in a high-emissions scenario. If emissions fall rapidly, the temperature rise is limited to about 1.7 degrees.

Read more: Top meteorologist Zheng Guoguang warns of climate change risks to China

Under the first scenario, about 23 million people are expected to be affected by flooding due to sea level rises every year between 2070 and 2100 if Beijing does not make large investments to help communities adapt. But when emissions are cut back rapidly and protective measures are strengthened, such as through higher dykes, the number of affected people each year drops sharply to 2,400.

Extreme weather, such as heatwaves and heavy rainfall, could become more frequent and more intense under a high emissions scenario.

The number of warm spell days is projected to increase from fewer than 10 in 1990 to about 165 on average by 2100.

That is expected to raise the risk of heat-related medical conditions, especially for the elderly, children and the chronically ill. Heat-related fatalities among the elderly are projected to rise to almost 49 deaths per 100,000 people by 2080 – about 6.86 million in total if the population stays at 1.4 billion – compared to an estimated baseline of just over two deaths per 100,000 people annually between 1961 and 1990.

Read more: China’s support on climate change ’essential’, says French President François Hollande

The number of days with heavy downpours – 20mm or more – could increase by almost three days on average between 1990 and 2100, exposing the country to inland river flood risks – which could affect food production and water supplies.

Many of the same drivers of climate change, such as carbon emissions, are also responsible for air pollution, one of the largest global health risks.

“The people of China know this only too well: grey sky and frequently unbreathable outdoor air is part and parcel of daily life in many parts of the country,” said Dr Bernhard Schwartlander, the WHO representative in China. “This is taking its toll on the country’s health – in increasing rates of sickness and death caused by respiratory tract infections, heart disease and lung cancer.”