Ten climate actions that could boost human health
Ahead of the COP26 climate summit, the World Health Organisation flags ten priority actions necessary to protect human and planetary health.
- 15 October 2021
- 6 min read
- by Linda Geddes
From deaths and illness from extreme weather events to the disruption of food systems and increases in food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, climate change is arguably the biggest health threat to humanity. In the runup to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the World Health Organisation has published a report setting out the health argument for climate action, together with ten recommendations governments need to take to confront the climate crisis, restore biodiversity and protect health.
Biodiversity loss is happening at an unprecedented rate, impacting human health worldwide and increasing the risk of infectious diseases as humans are brought into closer contact with wildlife. Climate change may amplify these threats.
The WHO report has been launched at the same time as an open letter, signed by 300 organisations representing more than two thirds of the global health workforce, calling for national leaders and COP26 country delegations to step up climate action.
“It has never been clearer that the climate crisis is one of the most urgent health emergencies we all face,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health. “Bringing down air pollution to WHO guideline levels, for example, would reduce the total number of global deaths from air pollution by 80% while dramatically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. A shift to more nutritious, plant-based diets in line with WHO recommendations, as another example, could reduce global emissions significantly, ensure more resilient food systems, and avoid up to 5.1 million diet-related deaths a year by 2050.”
Here’s a summary of the WHO’s recommendations and how implementing them could help to ensure a healthy future for humanity.
1. Commit to a healthy, green and just recovery from COVID-19
The coming months and years provide an opportunity to align climate change and health goals, as countries plan their way out of the economic disaster brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the same actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions also have the potential to improve human health, such as introducing measures that help avoid a rebound to pre-pandemic air pollution levels, or improving walking and cycling infrastructure in cities.
The pandemic has also exacerbated health inequities and vulnerabilities, both within and between countries. “Governments can reverse this trend by prioritising healthcare investments for those most at risk, strengthening the capacity of the health workforce, stepping up surveillance and research, addressing the root causes of zoonotic diseases, and investing recovery resources to build climate-smart health systems that are resilient, sustainable and low-carbon,” the report said.
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To fully address the urgency of the climate and health crises, governments must also commit to vaccine equity and address the inequalities that lie at the root of so many global health challenges, it added.
2. Our health is not negotiable
Limiting global heating to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees is arguably humanity’s most important public health goal. Financial aid from wealthier countries to help poorer ones tackle the impact of climate change should also be used to strengthen health systems.
3. Harness the health benefits of climate action
Governments should prioritise those climate interventions with the largest health, socio-economic and environmental gains. For instance, facilitating walking and cycling not only cuts carbon emissions but improves health through increased physical activity, potentially reducing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, diabetes and obesity. Promoting urban green spaces also facilitates climate mitigation and adaptation, while simultaneously reducing exposure to air pollution, having local cooling effects, and providing increased recreational space for social interaction, physical activity and stress relief.
4. Build health resilience to climate risks
The climate crisis stresses the capacity of health systems to prevent, adapt and respond to increased health risks. At the same time, health systems contribute to the climate crisis through their greenhouse gas emissions. Countries must therefore invest in building low-carbon, sustainable, climate-resilient health systems and facilities. This will involve assessing which climate-sensitive health risks their populations may be exposed to, which geographical areas and sections of society are most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and the extent to which health systems are capable of responding to these risks. They must then develop and implement an evidence-based adaptation plan for health.
5. Create energy systems that protect and improve climate and health
More than 90% of people breathe unhealthy levels of outdoor air pollution, while around one third of the global population – 2.6 billion people – are exposed to harmful levels of indoor air pollution, due to household cooking and heating fuels. As well as phasing out the use of fossil fuels for energy production, governments should invest in clean alternatives to the wood, biomass, animal waste, charcoal, kerosene and coal used by households in many parts of the world. They should also fast-track the transition to clean cooking and heating fuels and technologies and help reliably electrify households while expanding renewable energy. Improving the energy efficiency and insulation of homes and buildings should also help to reduce energy poverty and consumption, and improve people’s health.
6. Reimagine urban environments, transport, and mobility.
This means promoting sustainable, healthy urban design and transport systems, with improved access to green and blue public spaces (e.g., parks, lakes and canals), and priority for walking, cycling and public transport. Supporting the switch to cleaner and more active forms of transport not only has large environmental, health and social benefits, but can help protect people from the risk posed by COVID-19 and other diseases.
7. Protect and restore nature as the foundation of our health
Healthy human societies depend on healthy ecosystems and biodiversity as the source of clean air, water, healthy soils and many more things besides. However, biodiversity loss is happening at an unprecedented rate, impacting human health worldwide and increasing the risk of infectious diseases as humans are brought into closer contact with wildlife. Climate change may amplify these threats.
8. Promote healthy, sustainable, and resilient food systems
Current food systems, particularly industrial production methods, are driving global trends towards malnutrition – including hidden hunger, where the quality of food that people eat doesn’t meet their nutrient requirements. Globally, approximately one in five deaths are associated with unhealthy diets. Agriculture and food production systems are also a major driver of nature and biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
9. Finance a healthier, fairer, and greener future to save lives
Health is underfunded in most regions of the world, and climate finance – intended to support developing countries to respond to the challenges and opportunities of climate change – is no exception, with less than 0.5% of multilateral climate finance allocated to health projects. Yet finance for health adaptation and resilience could help to ensure the sustainable development of economies and the protection of vulnerable populations.
10. Listen to the health community and prescribe urgent climate action
Health professionals must be trained and empowered to recognise, anticipate and treat the consequences of shifting disease patterns, rising vulnerabilities, and increasing extreme weather events. Health workers also have an important role to play in reducing the environmental footprint of health care, which makes up almost 10% of global GDP.