The Malaysia launch of the Lancet Countdown highlighted climate risks to the region
Almost a third of people in South-East Asia are now vulnerable to extreme heat, experts have warned at the Malaysia launch of the latest world-leading report into the health impacts of climate change.
Researchers and policymakers, including Professor Elizabeth Robinson from the University of Reading, presented the main findings of the 2020 Lancet Countdown Report for the South-East Asia region at an online event today (December 17), hosted by Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT).
Also in attendance were the Minister of Higher Education Malaysia, the Deputy Secretary General (Environment Management) of the Ministery of Environment and Water Malaysia, Her Highness Princess Zatashah, of Selangor Malaysia, and Professor Dato’ D. Nor Aieni Haji Mokhtar, Vice Chancellor of UMT.
Dr Claudia Di Napoli, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading, who is also in the first working group of the Lancet Countdown, also presented at the Netherlands launch of the report earlier in December, emphasising a key finding of the report that no country, rich and poor, is immune from the effects of climate change.
Professor Robinson, an environmental economist in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, was keynote speaker at the Malaysia event. She was also representing the University of Reading Malaysia, located in EduCity, Iskandar, which also hosts world-leading courses and events in climate change and meteorology.
She said: “The evidence shows that Malaysia and the wider South-East Asia region reflect the global picture of increased deaths and illnesses as a consequence of an increasingly hotter world, but countries in this region also face their own unique climate challenges.
“Malaysia is already feeling the impact of a changing climate: rising sea levels and warmer waters are harming corals and threatening food security in coastal areas; and more extreme weather events including more intense rainfall, longer and more severe droughts, and more intense heatwaves are directly harming the health of Malaysians.
“There has been some positive recent progress in South-East Asia, including climate and healthcare services better linking up to share information, and evidence that countries are taking health seriously in their plans to adapt to climate change. But recent increases in vulnerability to extreme heat and deadly diseases are a cause of concern, and require a lot more action.”
The Lancet Countdown is an annual report compiled by 120 world-leading experts, from 38 academic institutions and UN agencies spanning every continent, to study the various ways climate change impacts our health. Professor Robinson coordinates the first working group of the report, addressing the exposure and vulnerability of people worldwide to climate change.
The 2020 report findings for the South-East Asia region included:
The number of people in South-East Asia who are now vulnerable to extreme heat has increased by more than 10% since 1990 to 31.3%. This is partly due to an ageing population, and higher urban populations.
In Malaysia, the number of heatwave exposure days has increased by 13 million since 1986-2005.
Deaths and illnesses relating to high temperatures and heatwaves are increasing, with the number of heat-related deaths in over 65s in Malaysia increasing from 157 in 2000-04 to 381 in 2014-18.
Less than 1% of Malaysia’s energy mix is from renewables, and the share of electricity generated from coal in South-East Asia continues to trend upwards, though may be plateauing out.
The number of deaths in Malaysia that can be attributed to fine pollution particles rose from 6,915 in 2015 to 8,313 in 2018.
Crop yields of key grains are falling in Malaysia, which is of concern as the value of food production has plateaued since 2011, with the number of people facing severe food insecurity remaining at about 2 million for the past five years.
Vulnerability to mosquito-borne diseases has begun to rise in the region, after declining between 2010-16 due to improvements in healthcare. Climate suitability for the transmission of dengue has increased by 8% in Malaysia since 1950.
Spending on health adaptation in 2018 remained less than $1 per person in South-East Asia, compared with $5.92 per person in the Americas and $0.48 in Africa.
Heat-related deaths cost South-East Asia 0.19% of its gross national income. This is comparatively low, but the impact is more substantial considering the average income in the region.
All countries in South-East Asia now make explicit references to health and wellbeing in their national climate action plans, compared to 73% of countries worldwide. Malaysia’s national government mentioned the link between health and climate change 12 times between 2005 and 2009 in the UN General Debate, considerably more than its neighbours, but there have been fewer mentions since then.
The evidence presented at the Malaysia launch is consistent with trends seen around the globe, with experts warning at the UK launch that global healthcare systems could be overwhelmed in future due to climate change in the same way they have been during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
The 2020 report was published on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement (2 December), which saw world leaders pledge to limit global warming to well below 2°C.
It followed the biggest ever report into local climate change health challenges in Reading, inspired by the countdown and led by Professor Robinson, which was published in November during Reading Climate Festival.
TRACKING IMPACTS AND OPPORTUNITIES
Asia has a diverse range of climates and populations, from the mountains of the Himalayas to the banks of the river Yangtze, to the coastal cities on the South China Sea.
The Lancet Countdown’s work in Asia aims to track the effects of climate change on human wellbeing and also identify opportunities to respond and benefit health, with cleaner air and healthier diets.
The collaboration works to ensure that health is at the centre of how governments across the continent understand and respond to climate change. This includes ensuring policymakers have access to high-quality data and guidance, and providing tools to improve public healthcare.
The Lancet Countdown collaboration recently launched a regional office for Asia at Tsinghua University in Beijing, as part of its efforts to build a global monitoring system.