Can you talk about the health impacts of climate change without mentioning the burning of fossil fuels, its leading cause?
An intergovernmental declaration on the health impacts of climate change led by the United Arab Emirates, which is presiding over this year’s global climate talks, and circulated among countries for their potential endorsement, does just that.
Several public health experts sent an open letter Tuesday to Sultan al-Jaber, the U.A.E. oil company executive presiding over the talks, urging him to “commit to an accelerated, just and equitable phaseout of fossil fuels and invest in a renewable energy transition.”
It’s a prelude to one big fight likely to take place at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, pitting the Persian Gulf petrostate hosting the talks against leading public health experts.
“A full and rapid phaseout of fossil fuels is the most significant way to provide the clean air, water, and environment that are foundational to good health,” the letter continued. Its signatories include the heads of the International Council of Nurses, the international chapter of Doctors Without Borders and a consortium of health ministers from six Latin American countries.
The World Health Organization also recently called for “an acceleration in the phaseout of fossil fuels.”
Mr. al-Jaber, speaking to diplomats gathered in Abu Dhabi this week for preparatory meetings, acknowledged the “strong views about the idea of including language on fossil fuels” in the conference declarations. “We must be responsible,” he said. “We must be real. We must be true to the facts. We must be pragmatic.”
Public health is on the agenda for the first time at the climate talks that have taken place under the auspices of the United Nations every year since 1995. The declaration, prepared by the U.A.E. with input from other countries, commits countries to “prevent worsening health impacts from climate change,” help health systems adapt to climate-sensitive diseases and encourage them to reduce emissions from the health sector.
“We recognize the urgency of taking action on climate change, and note the benefits for health from deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, including from just transitions, lower air pollution, active mobility, and shifts to sustainable healthy diets,” the text reads, without any mention of coal, oil or gas, the combustion of which causes air pollution and is increasing global temperatures.
The fight over fossil fuel language is likely to animate almost every aspect of this round of climate talks.
Climate activists have increasingly sharpened their message to call for an end to new oil and gas projects. A handful of countries, calling themselves the High Ambition Coalition, want nations to “phase out fossil fuel production and use.”
In fact, investments in oil and gas are surging, including by the state-owned oil company that Mr. al-Jaber heads, known as ADNOC.
Mr. al-Jaber, who also chairs the Emirates’ biggest renewable energy company, has said he hoped that all countries would agree to a global goal of tripling renewable energy by 2030, and transition to “an energy system that is free of unabated fossil fuels.”
That “unabated” language, supported by the United States and the European Union, implies that fossil fuel production can continue so long as its emissions are captured. The problem is that wide-scale adoption of that kind of carbon capture technology remains a distant possibility for now.
In their letter to Mr. al-Jaber, the public health experts also took aim at the fossil fuel industry, accusing it of a “decades-long campaign of obstructing climate action.”