Climate change threatens health in Europe: urgent action needed

, medical expert
Last reviewed: 14.06.2024

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14 May 2024, 09:30

In a recent report published in The Lancet Public Health, experts discussed how climate change is affecting people's health in Europe based on 42 indicators, including ticks, food security and leishmaniasis.

Delay in action and health inequalities

Researchers highlight that by delaying meaningful climate action, European governments are missing opportunities to improve and protect the health of their citizens, exacerbating health inequalities due to the disproportionate impact on vulnerable and high-risk groups.

Permanent deterioration of health

Global temperatures are approaching a 1.5°C increase, which if exceeded will have a major impact on climate health.

Heat-related deaths have risen sharply in Europe, to 17.2 deaths for every 100,000 people. As the risk of heat stress increases, vulnerable populations reduce their physical activity, which in turn increases the prevalence of non-communicable diseases. Exposure to heat also impacts economic and social determinants of health by reducing the workforce.

Rising temperatures also increase the range of disease vectors and pathogens, including dengue, zika, leishmaniasis and malaria, which can colonize previously inhospitable regions, increasing the risk of a major epidemic.

Danger of forest fires and drought

The risk of forest fires and drought also shows an increasing trend across Europe. The number of people in Europe experiencing severe or moderate food insecurity has increased by 12 million as a result of the climate emergency.

Climate change and health inequalities

The health impacts of climate change are deeply interconnected and do not affect everyone equally. The impact is unevenly distributed due to differences in adaptive capacity, sensitivity and exposure, which are determined by marginalization, socio-economic development and inequality (historical and current).

Often the main impacts of climate change are experienced by the groups least responsible for the problem; these groups may also not be recognized as vulnerable or prioritized through policy interventions.

In European countries, those most affected by the health impacts of climate change are indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, displaced people, migrants, low-income groups, pregnant women, women in labor.

For example, women are twice as likely as men to experience heat-related mortality or die due to malnutrition. Food insecurity is significantly higher among low-income households. People living in severely deprived areas are more likely to be exposed to harmful particles from wildfires.

Policies and adaptation strategies are often poorly designed; they do not consider equity and can exacerbate or perpetuate environmental and health inequalities. The authors call for further research that delves into the disparate health impacts of climate change to ensure adequate measures are taken to protect public health.

Accelerating climate action

The contribution of European countries to global greenhouse gas emissions has historically been and remains high. These emissions have brought economic growth to Europe, while other countries with low historical emissions are disproportionately affected by current and future environmental changes.

Climate change is therefore related to issues of environmental and social justice. In 2021, Europe produced about 5.4 tons of carbon dioxide per capita, almost three times more than the average person in South or Central America and six times more than the average person in Africa. Despite this, Europe has failed to reduce its emissions and will not achieve carbon neutrality until the end of the century.

Furthermore, as Europe imports services and goods produced elsewhere, the continent is also responsible for environmental burdens, including air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in other regions, with significant impacts on health and climate. Coal's contribution to Europe's total energy supply increased in 2021, and more than half of European countries continue to subsidize fossil fuels.

The authors highlight the need to mitigate climate change through decisive action and the benefits of such action, including reducing premature death and morbidity. Academic and corporate engagement on climate and health issues has increased, but individual, political and media engagement remains low.


This comprehensive study of the health impacts of climate change in European countries highlights the ongoing negative impacts on public health and notes that without appropriate and rapid action, these negative impacts will continue to grow.

The researchers noted that climate change is no longer a theoretical, hypothetical scenario expected to unfold in the future; this is an ongoing emergency situation that is rapidly increasing in severity. Billions of people are at risk from this crisis, and European countries have an important role to play in mitigating its impact.

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