In the past few decades, major public health advances have happened in Europe, with drastic decreases in premature mortality and a life expectancy increase of almost 9 years since 1980. European countries have some of the best health-care systems in the world. However, Europe is challenged with unprecedented and overlapping crises that are detrimental to human health and livelihoods and threaten adaptive capacity. Compared with pre-industrial times, the mean average European surface air temperature increase has been almost 1°C higher than the average global temperature increase, and 2022 was the hottest European summer on record. As the world's third largest economy and a major contributor to global cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, Europe is a key stakeholder in the world's response to climate change and has a global responsibility and opportunity to lead the transition to becoming a low-carbon economy and a healthier, more resilient society.

The health costs of delayed decarbonisation
Alarming increases in health-related hazards, vulnerabilities, exposures, and impacts from climate change across Europe show the urgent need for ambitious mitigation targets that restrict the global temperature rise to less than 1·5°C above pre-industrial levels. Simultaneously, effective adaptation strategies to build resilience to the increasing health threats of climate change are urgent.
Europe's population is increasingly exposed to heatwaves, putting particularly vulnerable groups (including the elderly, children and people in poor health) at risk and leading to a high burden of diseases and deaths. Besides the direct health impacts, heat exposure also undermines people's livelihoods and the social determinants of health by reducing labour capacity. 
Climate change is also driving increasingly intense and frequent climate-related extreme events in Europe, with both direct and indirect health impacts, loss of infrastructure, and economic costs.
The changing environmental conditions are also shifting the environmental suitability for the transmission of various infectious diseases, including Vibrio, dengue, West Nile virus.
Warmer temperatures are also shifting flowering seasons of several allergenic tree species, with birch, olive, and alder seasons starting to flower earlier and affecting the health of around 40% of the population in Europe who have pollen allergies.
These overlapping and interconnecting health impacts, which are evolving against a backdrop of a pandemic and a devastating war in Ukraine, reveal the urgent need for interventions that build resilience in the health sector and protect people from increasing health hazards. Some progress has been made in Europe's health adaptation, including development of national health and climate change strategies or plans, vulnerability and adaptation assessments, and greening of environments. Climate adaptation often needs to compete for scarce financial resources, and the enactment of adaptation plans alone is not sufficient to advance adaptive capacity. With the impacts of climate change on the rise, adaptation efforts must rapidly accelerate and be carefully implemented alongside mitigation strategies.

Europe should decrease its emissions to achieve the net-zero greenhouse gas emission objective by 2050 and reduce the health impacts of climate change. Moreover, with emission cuts the region would also benefit from direct and indirect health co-benefits resulting from decreased exposure to particulate matter that originates from burning fossil fuels and transport. Europe's high-carbon, meat-rich diets also contribute to its high greenhouse gas emissions, and pose threats to human health. In addition, delayed implementation of locally generated, low-carbon energy sources has made Europe susceptible to volatile energy prices, which reached record high values in 2022. While the world is trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and responding to multiple coinciding disasters, recovery is hindered by the negative climate change impacts on health and its determinants, emphasising the urgent need for action.

A transformational change for health
Despite the scarce climate action in Europe to date, indicators within this report suggest that change might be underway. Although engagement with the intersection of health and climate change is low compared with overall engagement with climate change more generally, political engagement with health and climate change in the European Parliament has slightly increased since 2014. Indicators show that an accelerated transition to clean energy could save lives each year.

The biggest public health opportunity of the century
With a world dangerously close to reaching climate-driven points of no return and an increasing energy crisis, and with the health of populations increasingly undermined by global warming, Europe is at a crucial point for change. If climate mitigation and adaptation plans are designed and implemented with health, wellbeing, and equity as the main focus, this could represent the biggest public health policy opportunity of the century. Ambitious European adaptation and mitigation strategies will not only protect lives and wellbeing in Europe, but also in countries that have contributed least to anthropogenic climate change. The danger of reaching a point of no return means that Europe cannot afford to miss such opportunity.

Reference information

Lancet Countdown in Europe

Published in Climate-ADAPT Nov 3, 2022   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT Dec 12, 2023

Language preference detected

Do you want to see the page translated into ?

Exclusion of liability
This translation is generated by eTranslation, a machine translation tool provided by the European Commission.