Anna Alex – PHAA intern
Leading up to COP26 in Glasgow next week, the World Health Organisation has released a special report, the Health Argument for Climate Action, outlining 10 recommendations made by the global health community for Heads of States to consider as priority areas and actionable points. The report was developed by health professionals, organisations and stakeholders who displayed a common consensus regarding key areas to ensure a green and just recovery from COVID-19.
Among the report’s highlights were the need to transition to renewable sources of energy across multiple sectors such as agriculture, transport, electricity and healthcare. It also urged governments to recognise the loss and damage faced by vulnerable communities and the moral obligation of developed nations in prioritizing the needs of these communities and providing them financial assistance as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The report also prompted increased monitoring and evaluation of the health and social co-benefits of climate action.
The 10 recommendations in COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health: The Health Argument for Climate Action are summarised as follows:
- Committing to a healthy recovery from COVID-19
Pre-existing health and social inequities were further exacerbated globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. Attempts should be made to align climate change and health goals to ensure a sustainable recovery from COVID-19 relying on evidence-based decisions.
Giving adequate consideration to health in all policies is one way of achieving this goal. This implies committing to a fossil-free recovery by discontinuing fossil fuel subsidies, and committing to vaccine equity by addressing the causes of health and climate change inequalities at the grassroot level. These measures can then help align climate and health goals in a manner that allows for emission reduction while positively changing global health. It is also recommended that global ability for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response be strengthened in preparation for future pandemics.
- Placing health and social justice at the forefront of climate action negotiations
Governments must set ambitious targets for climate action at COP26 with health and social justice as a central theme of these discussions. Once determined, the measures required to support these targets should be implemented in a swift manner while maintaining transparency to avoid worsening of climate impacts, reduce the growing inequalities and ensuring the health and prosperity of all.
COP26 is a chance for all countries to help rebuild trust in the Paris Agreement. This can be achieved by submitting Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that are in alignment with achieving the 1.5 degrees temperature goal, adequately protecting the health of the most vulnerable communities, and outlining climate interventions with clear health and social co-benefits.
High income countries must deliver on the climate finance goals of USD 100 billion/year as pledged in the Paris Agreement to help vulnerable countries adequately manage and adapt to growing climatic changes. They must also commit to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 at the latest.
- Prioritizing strategies that yield the greatest health co-benefit
The benefits of climate action far outweigh its initial costs. Government must attempt to maximize the health co-benefits arising as a result of climate action at all levels of governance. This entails committing to measure, promote, account for and monitor the health co-benefits of interventions and utilise these finding in decision making.
Additionally, it is important to recognise every individual’s “right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” and safeguard these rights through active policies and processes. Further research is required in regional and thematic knowledge regarding the health consequences of climate change. Governments should make decisions based on best available evidence however, reliance on local and Indigenous knowledge systems could contribute these efforts immensely.
- Re-developing health systems to be climate-resilient and sustainable
Health systems and facilities are at the forefront of providing care to people in the face of acute health threats, including health problems arising as a result of climate change. The climate crisis places stress on the health system’s capacity to prevent, adapt and respond to health risks.
However, the health sector itself contributes to the climate crisis through its greenhouse gas emissions. It is thus necessary to shift to a low-carbon, sustainable and climate-resilient healthcare system by conducting climate and health vulnerabilities and adaptation assessments and developing and implementing an evidence-based health national adaptation plan.
These measures can help identify underlying vulnerabilities in a geographical area and when undertaken in consultation with other health determining industries (water, sanitation, transport etc.) can effectively build a climate-resilient and sustainable health sector.
The healthcare sector requires increased investment in health adaptation financing to ensure more accessible and affordable services to the population and strengthening of workforce capacity.
- Guiding an inclusive transition to renewable energy sources
The first step to transitioning to cleaner sources of energy is by committing to phase out the use of fossil fuels. Governments must stop supporting fossil fuels, both domestically and internationally, and increase funding of renewable sources of energy while ensuring an efficient transition. Taxation of the negative health and economic effects of fossil fuels may incentivize and accelerate the transition to renewable sources.
Air pollution should be managed more efficiently and countries should adopt the WHO air quality guidelines. Investing in sustainable sources for households and the health sector will help low- and middle- income countries to reduce energy poverty, improve access to healthcare and improve health outcomes.
Renewables have a great capacity of providing job opportunities thus supporting countries to reduce emissions while concurrently benefiting the country socially and economically. Suitable support, training and opportunities should be provided to aid individuals currently employed in the fossil fuel industry to ensure a just transition while adequately managing their occupational health and social risks.
- Reimaging urban environments, transport and mobility
Cities contribute significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases due to their vast networks of transport, housing and businesses. In order to meet the goals of the Paris agreement, it is suggested that countries phase out the use of vehicles with internal combustions engines and increase the sale of electric vehicles. Additionally, prioritizing alternative means of transport such as walking, cycling or public transport will also help reduce emissions as well as contribute positively to population health.
In essence, cities require to be reimagined in a way that allows for efficient transport and accommodation while providing adequate green spaces to the population to benefit both the environment and people.
- Protecting and restoring biodiversity
The health of humans is closely interconnected to a healthy ecosystem and biodiversity. It is therefore not sufficient to reduce emissions caused as a result of human activity, but also restore what has already been lost and protect the biodiversity of this planet. Governments around the globe are urged to commit to protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030 and reversing biodiversity loss by adopting a global biodiversity framework. Additionally, a “one health” approach should be adopted by countries to ensure prevention and early detection of health risks.
- Promoting healthy and sustainable food systems
It is widely recognized that food insecurity and unhealthy food consumption are now the single largest cause of illness and disease globally, and changes in land use is a major driver of new disease outbreaks. These are bound to intensify with climate change. To ensure the health of people, animals and the environment is protected, an urgent shift to sustainable farming practices and safe and healthy diets is necessary.
This can be achieved by improving access to nutritious, sustainable and affordable food, and removing subsidies and other incentives that support high emissions, unhealthy food options and agricultural practices. Individuals and communities should be supported in transitioning from unsuitable farming techniques that may hurt the environment and human health.
- Finance healthier futures
Finance plays a major role in paving the way for a sustainable, fair and healthy future. It is time to reflect on how financial decision are made and how they affect everyone. This is a call to the government to stop funding pollution. This means cutting fossil fuel subsidies and other harmful practices, and not allocating public funding for such projects. Instead, finances should be redirected to invest in adaptation and resilience measures and help vulnerable countries and communities adapt to the climate crisis.
- Prescribe climate action
The report lastly recommends mobilizing the health community and supporting and training the workforce in advocating for climate action. The health sector should transition to become sustainable and resilient to climate change. Ambitious target should be set to achieve health system net zero emissions no later than 2050. The health workforce should be supported to actively advocate climate action in their community and governments should invest in the future of coming generations.
The recommendations set out by the WHO may be ambitious but they are not impossible, as has been demonstrated by the various examples set out with each recommendation in the report. The climate crisis is not a future threat, it is already happening. The need of the hour ultimately is political will to carry out these recommendations based in evidence.