More than 1,400 health professionals from around the world and some 200 health organisations on Wednesday called for nations to establish an urgent “fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty” to protect human health.
A letter signed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Federation of Public Health Associations demands that governments set up a legally binding global plan to end the use of fossil fuels.
Under the plan, any future expansion of fossil fuels would immediately be stopped, while the existing production of fossil fuels would be phased out.
“The modern addiction to fossil fuels is not just an act of environmental vandalism. From the health perspective, it is an act of self-sabotage,” WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
A letter said the treaty could work similarly to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – except this time the harmful controlled substances would be coal, oil and gas.
Signatories have asked that the move away from fossil fuels be carried out in "a fair and equitable manner”, with richer countries supporting lower-income nations to ensure the change "reduces poverty rather than exacerbating it".
Air pollution, mostly from burning fossil fuels, has been linked to the deaths of seven million people a year.
The letter said that phasing out fossil fuels would prevent 3.6 million deaths a year from air pollution alone, adding the same cannot be said for “proposed false solutions, such as carbon capture and storage".
Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, head of the WHO’s climate change department, told The Guardian the letter was a watershed moment.
“This is the first time the health sector has come together to issue such a statement explicitly about fossil fuels,” he said.
Climate change has spurred frequent and severe extreme weather events that can have lasting impacts on health that include diseases and cancers.
Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Canada's sub-Arctic region who signed the letter, said that the city of Yellowknife had some of the worst air quality in the world when it was ringed by wildfires in 2014.
"We had a doubling of emergency department visits for asthma, a 50 percent increase in pneumonia and one of our pharmacies ran out of one of the breathing medicines," Howard told AFP.
She said phasing out fossils fuels was something that needed to be done “for everybody” and “for everybody's kids”.