Global health groups seek treaty to end use of fossil fuels

COP27

Plogging Kenya founder Zablon Ogolla (left), Cycling to Cop27 chairperson Rebecca Bor and Global March for Planet coordinator Daniel Helmer during a media briefing at Cedar Close in Nairobi  on September 15 on the planned Cop27 meeting in Egypt.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

The World Health Organization (WHO) alongside 192 other global health and climate organisations yesterday wrote a joint call to action letter urging governments to come up with a treaty that will fast-track phasing out fossil fuel use. 

With backing from more than 1,000 health professionals globally, the letter not only raises concerns on the environmental effects of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — but also its health implications on people.

This call comes barely a month after climate lobbyists were disappointed in the proposal by Africa's Technical Committee on Energy which, in its 41st Ordinary session, backed investments in fossil fuels in Africa.

It also comes ahead of the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27), which will be held in Egypt this November.

“The modern addiction to fossil fuels is not just an act of environmental vandalism. From the health perspective, it is an act of self-sabotage,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

The drafting of the letter was led by Global Climate and Health Alliance, Physicians for Social Responsibility with support from the WHO, the WHO-Civil Society Working Group on Climate and Health, Health Care Without Harm, Nobel Laureates, Health professionals and other stakeholders.

“It’s plain to see why we need a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty: fossil fuels are not just toxic to people’s health — every stage of the fossil fuel cycle puts people’s health at risk, from mining and fracking to transport through pipelines, to processing and finally to burning fossil fuels for transport, electricity, and industrial use”, said Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance in a statement.

Should governments agree to adopt it as a legally binding agreement, the signatories of the letter compare it to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control that was adopted in May 2003 at the World Health Assembly.

In a joint statement, they suggest that embracing the treaty will provide an evidence-based international agreement that will help in controlling a category of substances well-known to be harmful to human health.

“The health risks and impacts of climate change, air pollution, and proximity to extraction and processing sites are not equally distributed. They fall most heavily on communities who are least historically responsible for fossil fuel emissions, with the most limited access to the resources and power needed for redress,” read the letter.

The global health groups argue that fossil fuels result in air pollution, contribute to the climate crisis and exacerbate frequent extreme weather events, as well as occupational health risks.

The letter has three key issues that the cosigners seek to address in the proposed legally binding agreement.

They hope to curtail new fossil fuel infrastructure and production, phase-out existing production and use of fossil fuels albeit in a fair and equitable manner, and lastly to promote solutions and ensure a just transition to clean energy.

This comes a day after President William Ruto promised during his inauguration speech that his government would reduce the cost of renewable energy technologies as one of the ways to tackle climate change.

“Kenya is on a transition to clean energy that will support jobs, local economies and sustainable industrialisation. In Kenya, we will lead this endeavour by reaffirming our commitment to transition to 100 per cent clean energy by 2030,” he said.

Healthcare workers, who took part in writing the call to action letter lamented the rising number of detrimental health effects of fossil fuel-related complications.

Already, WHO data shows that air pollution, which comes as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, kills about seven million people globally every year.

“We are thrilled to see health professionals step out of their operating rooms, clinics and offices to support the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty for the sake of people and the planet, alongside a growing chorus of heads of government, Nobel laureates, leading academics and civil society. 

“The world is waking up to the reality of the climate crisis which is inextricably tied to millions of lives and their health. It’s time for world leaders to meet the bar for climate leadership by working together to end the fossil fuel era in a way that is fair and fast” said Harjeet Singh, Global Engagement Director of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.

Dr Laalitha Surapaneni, a practising internal medicine physician and national board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, noted that health professionals were “struggling” to protect communities from the impacts of climate change.

“Leaving fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, is a common sense public health measure,” said Dr Surapaneni.

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