by Peter van den Hazel, medical doctor, co-founder of International Network for Children’s Health, Environment and Safety (INCHES) and President of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL)
As a medical doctor, specialised in children’s environmental health, a healthy start of life of my patients is what I work towards. And for good reason – a healthy childhood, and healthy development starting in utero, sets the path to prevent disease throughout one’s life. And climate change is increasingly being discussed as a risk factor for children’s and adults’ health. Just last month, the 2019 Lancet Countdown report, which is tracking progress on health and climate change, showed that the life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by global warming, with increased frequencies of extreme weather, or food and water insecurity, with changing patterns of infectious disease, and a less certain future. What we do now and every day from now on will affect children’s health at every stage of their lives. As a health professional I am one of a growing number of people from the health sector, who have decided to speak out on the health risks of climate change and urge policy-makers for increased action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Coming Friday, the Dutch Supreme Court (Hoge Raad) will be issuing its final verdict on the Urgenda case, and will reconfirm if our government has to deliver emission reductions of at least 25% by 2020. While the Court will not prescribe how to reach further emission reductions, from a health perspective the lowest hanging fruit would be to speed up the most healthy energy transition with the closing of 3 more coal power plants: Maasvlakte Centrale, Centrale Rotterdam and Eemshaven. As a report from Greenpeace, Natuur & Milieu and Longfonds has shown, the announced closure of the Hemweg power plant will not be enough to deliver on that reduction goal – and the most promising and obvious next step will be closing down more coal power plants, with the additional benefit of improving health and saving hundreds of thousands of Euros in health costs.
Coal power is the most health-harming form of energy generation, as the CO2 emissions released not only fuel climate change, but coal combustion also affects our health negatively with the emissions of hazardous air pollution – particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – which adds to an already poor air quality situation, especially in cities. The World Health Organization (WHO) has made it abundantly clear that no level of air pollution can be considered ‘safe’ and the link between air pollution and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases is well established. New science also demonstrates the harm for children’s health, even before they are born.
The swift closing of the 3 additional coal power plants would not only deliver the missing 9 Mt of emission cuts the Netherlands still needs to additionally reduce for the year 2020, they would also deliver very tangible and immediate benefits to health, by reducing health costs of up to 263,273 Euros, and preventing over 25,000 lost working days due to illness annually. Nearly 1,500 asthma attacks by children would also be prevented.
The government has been appealing the Urgenda verdict for 4 years – it should recognise that accepting and executing it will be a blessing. For this week, I am looking to our Parliament and our government to reconfirm a commitment to a swift and urgent coal phase out before 2030 and the pathway to it – for decisive climate and clean air action, and the substantial benefit for our children in the short and long term.