Global warming raises urban health risks

Elderly most exposed, especially in emerging countries

5 November 2019 Ashim Paun, Climate Change Strategist

Cities are at the forefront of the battle against climate change. They are key to mitigating greenhouse gases – urban activities and consumption produce up to 70 per cent of emissions – but cities also experience many of the impacts associated with global warming.

However, climate-smart cities can safeguard and enhance the quality of their citizens’ lives through environmental protection, and by investing in infrastructure, services and new technologies that ensure clean, safe and reliable transport, energy, housing, health and public-sector services.

The impacts of global warming are already evident. Alongside rising temperatures, extreme weather is becoming more frequent and severe, while water availability is increasingly variable.

Climate adaptation and resilience thus often focus on physical measures, including drainage systems, coastal defences, protecting transport infrastructure and drought-resistant power supplies. But the social impacts of global warming are also likely to rise.

Human health risks are increasingly associated with global warming, including water-related illnesses, allergens, vector-borne diseases and air pollution. Higher temperatures are linked to heat stroke, dehydration, respiratory problems and cardiovascular diseases: they can also lead to growth in water-borne pathogens, including cholera. Additional malaria deaths attributable to climate change are expected to reach 60,000 a year between 2030 and 2050.

Globally, 4.2 million premature deaths were caused by ambient air-pollution in 2016, mainly through heart disease and strokes, but also from respiratory diseases and lung cancer. And a warmer climate extends flowering seasons, resulting in more allergens: pollen counts are expected to increase by around 250 per cent between 2000 and 2040. Plus there is more dust in the air, as areas outside cities become increasingly arid. These factors can create a toxic cocktail for urban residents.

Demographic drivers will increase the risks. The global rural-to-urban shift, especially in emerging and frontier markets, will increase the world’s urban population from 4.2 billion to 6.7 billion by 2050, says the United Nations.

The elderly are more vulnerable to many health risks and we expect the global population of over-65s to rise from 608 million to more than 1.5 billion by 2050, with three-quarters living in cities. And the numbers of urban dwelling over-65s could jump almost 300 per cent to around 560 million in the 11 emerging-market countries within the G20 group.

These countries – including China, South Korea, Russia and Brazil – face the greater risks but they are more likely to have funds to build resilience than less-wealthy emerging and frontier market nations and their cities.

Ageing populations place a greater burden on government budgets for healthcare spending. We expect this expenditure to rise almost five-fold by 2050, to nearly USD10,000 billion – roughly half spent on over-65s.

However, climate-smart cities are addressing the health risks associated with global warming through clean transport and other programmes that could help make them more sustainable.

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