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Top doctors back legal action against Government on carbon emissions

The health professionals support campaign group Plan B’s legal challenge to force the Government to revise its 2050 carbon target.

A group of leading doctors have written an open letter backing legal action to force the Government to cut carbon emissions to tackle climate change.

The medics, who include Professor Sir Malcolm Green, professor emeritus at Imperial College, and Professor John Middleton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, argue the Government has not fulfilled its commitments to cutting emissions in line with the Climate Change Act of 2008 and the Paris Agreement objective of limiting warming to 1.5C or “well below” 2C.

The 18 health professionals who have signed it support campaign group Plan B’s legal challenge to force the Government to revise its 2050 carbon target, saying it is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement temperature objective.

Former chief government scientist Professor Sir David King has also endorsed this approach.

The UK currently has a legally binding target to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, even though they must be brought down to net zero by that date to meet the country’s international obligations.

But the letter said the current UK target of reducing emissions by 80%, compared to a 1990 baseline, does not align to the Paris Agreement objective, while the current UK target is around three times the UK’s share of the global carbon budget for a 50% probability of limiting warming to 1.5C.

They said the UK Government is aware that the current 2050 target is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement temperature objective.

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“Climate change has serious implications for our health, wellbeing, livelihoods, and the structure of organised society,” they write. “Its direct effects result from rising temperatures and changes in the frequency and strength of storms, floods, droughts, and heat-waves – with physical and mental health consequences.

“The impacts of climate change will also be mediated through less direct pathways, including changes in crop yields, the burden and distribution of infectious disease, and in climate-induced population displacement and violent conflict.

“Although many of these effects are already seen, their progression in the absence of climate change mitigation will greatly amplify existing global health challenges and inequalities. The effects also threaten to undermine many of the social, economic, and environmental drivers of health that have contributed greatly to human progress.”

The letter, published in medical journal, the BMJ, said that as a “self-proclaimed ‘climate leader’ the UK Government has a critical role to play.

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“We are therefore disturbed and concerned by the Government’s maintenance of a target despite awareness of its inadequacy,” they add. “We recognise that after so many years of procrastination there is no longer any guarantee that disaster can be avoided.

“But if the Government is aiming for failure then failure is all but guaranteed. We urge the Government to show real leadership and revise the carbon target in line with the Paris Agreement (and on the basis of equity and the precautionary principle) as a matter of urgent and immediate priority.”

The other people to have signed the letter are: Professor Hugh Montgomery, professor of intensive care medicine and director of the Centre for Human Health and Performance at University College London, Professor John Moxham, director of clinical strategy for King’s Health Partners, Professor Sue Atkinson, co-chairwoman of the Climate and Health Council, Dr Robin Stott, board member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, and Professor Nigel Leigh, professor of neurology at Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

Professor Richard Smith, chairman of icddr,b (formerly International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease, Bangladesh), Dr Mike Gill, former co-chairman of the Climate and Health Council, Dr David Pencheon, director of the Sustainable Development Unit (SDU), Dr Robin Russell-Jones, chairman of the charity Help Rescue The Planet, retired physician Dr Michael Boulton-Jones and junior doctor Dr Izzy Braithwaite also signed the letter.

Dr Nick Watts, director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, Professor John Walmsley, former president of the European College of Veterinary Surgeons, paedriatic specialist Dr Jo-anne Veltman, BMJ editor-in-chief Dr Fiona Godlee, and Dr Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, also put their names to it.

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