Mikko Paunio: The Lancet Countdown Report Is Dangerous Nonsense

  • Date: 25/11/19
  • Mikko Paunio, MD, MHS adjunct professor in epidemiology at the University of Helsinki

The mainstream media has – again – promoted a nonsensical anti-development agenda


Almost all Finnish newspapers and TV and radio channels recently told readers, viewers and listeners that a child born today will suffer enormously because of manmade climate change unless political action is taken. Their claims are based on a report from the medical journal, The Lancet, entitled The 2019 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate. Apparently the mainstream media has told the same story around the world.

The new report is mostly nonsense, and dangerous nonsense too. For example, it assumes that the predicted increases in global temperatures will bring vector-borne diseases in their wake, although the validity of such forecasts is highly debatable,[i] and the connection to vector-borne diseases is speculative and/or false. The report also says that global warming will cause droughts and therefore food shortages and malnutrition, although the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization continues to report record harvests in most years.[ii] It also claims that eliminating fossil fuel use will bring extraordinary health co-benefits and that tens of millions of lives will be saved, if only politicians make the right choices.

Neglecting public health

Appallingly, Lancet Countdown ignores the history of institutional environmental health practice, which raised hygiene standards in rich countries over a long period from the 1880s to around 1960.[iii] Institutional environmental health practice was pivotal in bringing about the public health miracle seen in in these countries at that time. Effective infection control by environmental health practitioners was critical in eradicating repeated diarrhea in babies – the main cause of permanent undernutrition and stunting – in many countries.3.[iv] Abundant water and sanitation were the key factors, and without use of fossil fuels (and later nuclear power) none of this would have been possible: the public health revolution would never have taken place. Abundant water is therefore vital in preventing malnutrition, and in fact environmental health legislation in rich countries usually doesn’t refer to drinking water, but instead to household water.

Nothing has changed. In the developing world today, only around 20% of childhood diarrhea transmission is water-borne and around 80% is water washable. The solution to diarrhea and malnutrition is therefore still the provision of abundant water to households. But because this can only come through use of fossil fuels, environmentalists are vehemently opposed, and have had to come up with a way to hide this. So they now promote the idea that access to clean drinking water must be defined as a human right. Remarkably, under pressure from green groups, the word “hygiene” has been dropped from the text of UN Sustainable Development Goal No. 6, which demands water in quantity.

And, copying this appalling tendency, the Lancet report has no discussion of health protection infrastructure — water mains and sewerage and the associated energy requirements – although its importance in climate change adaptation has been acknowledged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report.[v] Apparently, the institutions behind the Lancet Countdown do not want poor people to enjoy the high standards of hygiene and sanitation that have done so much to improve and extend life in the rich countries.

Inventing health co-benefits

The report claims that children born today will see enormous health co-benefits as society eradicates coal from the economy:

Coal phase-out is essential, not only as a key measure to mitigate climate change, but also to reduce morbidity and mortality from air pollution…

Placing health at the centre of this transition will yield enormous dividends for the public and the economy, with cleaner air, safer cities, and healthier diets. Analysis focused on one of these pathways—cleaner air through more sustainable transport and power generation systems—suggests that the economic gains from the health benefits of meeting the Paris Agreement substantially outweigh the cost of any intervention by a ratio of 1·45 to 2·45, resulting in trillions of dollars of savings worldwide.

This is highly misleading. Many cities have shown that centralized power production with coal can have a very limited adverse impact on public health, while cheap power drives health benefits like cold chains and water supplies. For example, in Helsinki, the backbone of the municipal energy supply is heat and power co-generation in four power plants with very efficient removal of air pollution. Helsinki has the lowest air pollution levels of any metropolitan area in the world (perhaps with the exception of Stockholm). It has PM 2.5 levels below even the stringent WHO standards.[vi] The city was awarded UN environment prizes for its achievements in ambient air pollution control in the 1980s. Numerous Chinese delegations have visited these plants and Beijing is now copying Helsinki’s model – the city already has a district heating system, but one that uses obsolete Soviet boiler technology from the 1950s. Similarly, in Stockholm ambient air pollution levels were reduced after the installation of several large municipal waste incineration plants.

Fake solutions

The Lancet Countdown report mentions the biggest pollution problem in the world, from decentralised heating and cooking, but fails to stress that this is the origin of much ambient air pollution, particularly in Asian megacities. The World Health Organization claims this kills millions of people annually.[vii] Remarkably, the Lancet report claims that the solution used by developed countries – development of centralised power (and sometimes heat) production, but instead demands the use impractical, unreliable and very expensive renewables.

The report also fails to explain that a huge improvement in air pollution levels in poor countries is already being found through use of liquefied petroleum gas, which is rapidly penetrating markets in India and is already making inroads in sub-Saharan Africa too.[viii] By 2030 perhaps as many as one billion poor people will have access to LPG.

Dishonest researchers in the world-renowned institutions

This new Lancet Countdown report, with its highly questionable message, has been promoted worldwide. Its prominence has come about because audiences are told that it was written by researchers working in institutions like the World Health Organization and the World Bank. I have previously shown6,[ix] – without any rebuttals do date –  that scientific quality of these Lancet Countdown reports is very low. They are the produce either of incompetence or something worse.

Unfortunately, the latter explanation appears more likely: the Lancet Countdown cites the WHO climate change report,[x] but without giving its crucial finding, namely that the impact on climate change is expected to be rather small, increasing the number of deaths each year by just 0.5%. Furthermore, the Lancet hides the enormous problems that would be caused by expanding bioenergy, an idea pushed by the IPCC in one of its recent reports.[xi] The WHO pointed out in one of its reports[xii] that an expansion of bioenergy would cause widespread famines, extinction of flora and fauna and destruction of water resources.[xiii] Yet the Lancet Countdown says nothing of this.

The mainstream media has – again – promoted a nonsensical anti-development agenda. If they are successful the repercussions for the world’s poor will be appalling. They should be ashamed.

[i] https://www.rossmckitrick.com/uploads/4/8/0/8/4808045/model_obs_comp_nov_2019.pdf

[ii] http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/csdb/en/ 

[iii] http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/512861468313533832/Environmental-health-and-child-survival-epidemiology-economics-experiences 

[iv] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30287125 

[v] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WGIIAR5-PartA_FINAL.pdf  – See Chapter 8.

[vi] https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2018/05/Paunio-EnergyLadder.pdf 

[vii] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature15371

[viii] https://www.thegwpf.org/better-for-health-to-ignore-the-climate-movement/

[ix] https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2018/01/Paunio-PublicHealth.pdf

[x] Hales S, et al. (eds.), Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s. Report,World Health Organization, 2014.

[xi] Global Warming of 1.5◦C – An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5◦C above pre-industrial levels and related global GHG emission pathways in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development and other efforts to eradicate poverty. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018. http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/.

[xii] Ebi K et al. The 1.5 Health Report. Synthesis on Health and Climate Science in the IPCC SR1.5 Report, World Health Organization,2018.

[xiii] Shindell D etal. Quantified, localized health benefits of accelerated carbon dioxide emissions reductions. Nature Climate Change, 2018;8(4): 291–295.

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