In just six weeks, world leaders will meet in Paris to negotiate a new global climate-change agreement. To date, 150 countries have submitted plans detailing how they will move their economies along a more resilient low-carbon trajectory. These plans represent the first generation of investments to be made in order to build a competitive future without the dangerous levels of carbon-dioxide emissions that are now driving global warming.
The transition to a cleaner future will require both government action and the right incentives for the private sector. At the center should be a strong public policy that puts a price on carbon pollution. Placing a higher price on carbon-based fuels, electricity, and industrial activities will create incentives for the use of cleaner fuels, save energy, and promote a shift to greener investments. Measures such as carbon taxes and fees, emissions-trading programs and other pricing mechanisms, and removal of inefficient subsidies can give businesses and households the certainty and predictability they need to make long-term investments in climate-smart development.
The use of wood energy – including firewood and charcoal – is largely considered an option of last resort. It evokes time-consuming wood collection, health hazards and small-scale fuel used by poor families in rural areas where there are no other energy alternatives.
And to a certain extent this picture is accurate. A study by the Alliance for Clean Cookstoves found that women in India spend the equivalent of two weeks every year collecting firewood, which they use to cook and heat their homes. Indoor air pollution caused by the smoke from burning firewood is known to lead to severe health problems: the WHO estimates 4.3 million deaths a year worldwide attributed to diseases associated with cooking and heating with solid fuels. Incomplete combustion creates short-lived climate pollutants, which also act as powerful agents of climate change.
But wood is a valuable source of energy for many of the 2.9 billion people worldwide who lack access to clean cooking facilities, including in major cities. It fuels many industries, from brickmaking and metal processing in the Congo Basin to steel and iron production in Brazil.
In fact, the value of charcoal production in Africa was estimated at more than $8 billion in 2007, creating livelihoods for about seven million women and men, and catering to a rapidly growing urban demand. From this standpoint, wood energy makes up an enterprise of industrial scale.
So, instead of disregarding wood energy as outdated, we must think of the economic, social and environmental benefits that would derive from modernizing its use. After all, wood energy is still one of the most widespread renewable fuels at our disposal. We already have the technological know-how to enhance the sustainability of wood energy value chains. Across the European Union’s 28 member states, wood and solid biofuels produced through “modern” methods accounted for nearly half of total primary energy from renewables in 2012.
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However, a recent resolution by the World Health Organization's (WHO) governing body shows that this narrative is beginning to change.
At the core of the encyclical is both a concern for the health of the planet and for the earth’s poor, reflected in a commitment to social values and integrity, environmental resilience, and economic inclusion.
The stock-taking begins, aptly, with pollution: “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.” The World Bank’s latest edition of the Little Green Data Book finds indeed that in low and middle-income countries, 86% of the residents are exposed to air pollution levels (measured in exposure particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter) that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The WHO last year made headlines when it calculated that 7 million people had died prematurely from indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2012. From safer cookstoves in rural areas, to better air quality management in fast growing cities, this is an area where solutions are known and must be urgently applied.
Blink and you may have missed that the beginning of May was the third United Nations Road Safety Week. As with everything omnipresent in our lives, the steady drumbeat of the nightly local news reporting a fatal wreck or injury may only cause a passing glance. Yet, a number of recent actions have focused international institutions, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and others together to take on the number one killer of young people worldwide: road crashes.The end of April saw the United Nations Secretary General announced the creation of a Special Envoy for Road Safety, signaling a new level of growing attention to the topic. While this year’s UN Road Safety Week was dedicated to the theme of protecting children, it’s really about ensuring the safety of all ages, especially in the developing world, where 90 percent of road crashes occur each year.
The United Kingdom, Netherlands and Sweden consistently occupy the top of the road safety league table. As the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020 hits its mid-point, practitioners are working on transferring these countries’ (and others) lessons more quickly across the developing world. In the meantime, the overall cost of fatal and serious injuries in just the 80 lowest-income countries is estimated to be a staggering $220 billion per year and a global average equivalent to 3-5% of GDP loss.
Action is needed now, to avoid the forecasted rise of road fatalities to be the fifth-overall leading cause of death worldwide by 2030.
There will likely not be a single breakthrough moment to get this topic into the realm of more mainstreamed development issues, but rather a series of sustained pushes across spheres of activity at the country, regional and global level. The month of March 2015 saw three telling activities play out with global aspirations.
The World Health Organization kicked off its global high-level conference on Health and Climate Change this week in Geneva. What makes this conference particularly significant is the fact that while the WHO has been working on this agenda for the past 20 years, this is the first time it has led a conference with so many decision-makers involved.
The compelling state of scientific evidence – as documented in a separate chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment report – has lent a certain urgency to the climate change agenda in the health community. The audience for this conference included around 300 senior level participants from various WHO member countries, mostly from the health sector, including a number of ministers.
I’m a big believer in setting highly ambitious targets in order to galvanize communities and countries to take action on serious issues. When I was at the World Health Organization in 2003, we set a target called “3 x 5” – committing to treat 3 million people with HIV/AIDS in the developing world by 2005.
At the time, just a few hundred thousand people in the developing world had access to the life-saving treatment. When we announced the target, the global health community was still arguing about whether HIV treatment in poor countries was possible. Some called it an impossible dream that would give people false hope.
I responded that no one ever said treating 3 million people would be easy. But we needed a measurable and time-limited target to change fundamentally the way we thought about the challenges of HIV in developing countries. The target helped change the way we worked – we had fewer arguments about if we should do it, and focused on how to get it done.
I had been warned—I found it hard to believe—that WHO ministerial meetings can be rather dull affairs of little consequence. Ministers typically take it in turn to read their prepared speeches; their fellow ministers appear to be listening attentively through their headsets but some, it seems, have been known to zap through the simultaneous translation channels in search of lighter entertainment. Speeches aren’t played over the loudspeakers for fear of waking jetlagged ministers from their afternoon naps. WHO is a very considerate organization: it likes to make sure that while on its premises visitors reach “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
Well I’m happy to report that last week’s ministerial meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC)—held in Geneva on February 18-19, jointly organized by WHO and the World Bank, and attended by delegates from all over the world (see map)—didn’t fit the stereotype.
The scientific evidence is overwhelming. As Robert Beaglehole and colleagues at the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out years ago, tobacco is the only consumer product that eventually kills half of its regular users if they follow its manufacturers’ recommendations.
Given this dire reality, it is clear that Africa is now at a crossroads. On one hand, the countries in this region have become an attractive and under-tapped market as tougher regulations, high taxes, and greater consumer awareness of the dangers of smoking in developed countries are “closing the door” to tobacco imports and leading to significant drops in consumption. And on the other hand, cigarettes are becoming increasingly affordable as incomes rise in several African countries due to the rapid economic growth of recent years. Indeed, African countries are experiencing the highest increase in the rate of tobacco use amongst developing countries--the number of smokers in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to increase 148 percent by 2030, to 208 million smokers or one-fifth of the total population.