Faced with “a world in disarray,” from over 2.87 million global Covid-19 cases and 556,500 deaths to rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition on Wednesday urged world leaders to learn from the coronavirus pandemic and “make health a central focus of national climate policies.”
“Governments must address the interlinked priorities of health, climate change, economic sustainability, and equity as momentum builds towards COP26.”
—Jeni Miller, GCHA
That call from the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA), a coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups, came as the World Health Organization and governments across the globe marked World Health Day. This year’s theme, set by the United Nations agency, is “building a fairer, healthier world” for “everyone, everywhere.”
Specifically, GCHA demanded emissions reduction targets that align with the 2015 Paris agreement—which aims to limit global temperature rise this century to “well below” 2°C, and preferably 1.5°C—in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), which governments are updating ahead of a November summit.
The coalition also advocated for ensuring that climate commitments and actions include: measures to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that mitigate climate change and maximize health benefits such as by improving air quality; calculating associated health costs savings; and adaptation strategies incorporating health and investments in resilient healthcare and public health systems.
GCHA added that “within and beyond NDCs, Covid-19 recovery investments must align with healthy national climate action/commitments, to protect people, the planet, and economies, securing a healthy and sustainable future.”
Jeni Miller, the coalition’s executive director, warned that “with countries who make up 70% of global emissions yet to go public with updates to their national climate commitments, there is a massive opportunity for governments to escalate climate ambition—the alternative is to risk endangering the health of both people and the planet on which we all depend.”
Our health, the climate & environment, our economies, and social equity are fundamentally intertwined. A stable & ongoing global recovery will require ambitious national climate plans, and a healthy & sustainable future requires health be in those plans! https://t.co/ALoCWnmcag
— JeniMiller (@JeniMiller) April 7, 2021
“The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy—and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy,” Miller said. “Healthy populations are a prerequisite for economic recovery, and strong health systems are essential to increase resilience to future crises, such as changing infectious disease patterns and extreme weather events.”
“Win-win solutions that both protect health and mitigate climate change have never been more relevant than at this moment of economic fragility.”
The pandemic has led public health and wildlife experts around the world to emphatically encourage bold action to not only limit global heating but also “to reduce the risk of future pandemics and heal our broken relationship with nature,” as a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report put it last year.
“Both health systems and economies must be bolstered in preparation for the health burden that is expected to result from rapidly rising temperatures and extreme weather events,” said Miller.
“In addition, the health benefits of climate solutions are more important than ever at a time when health resources have been strained by the pandemic,” she continued. “As a paltry 1% reduction in GHG emissions would spell disaster for citizens of every country, governments must seize this moment to urgently reorient current trajectories for the sake of people worldwide, and for generations to come.”
Pushing policymakers to pursue “interventions that reduce emissions and also offer immediate and local health benefits, such as improved air quality, healthier diets, and increased physical activity,” Miller declared that “governments must protect their citizens’ health by embedding health in national climate policies, which will also offset the economic costs of climate mitigation and adaptation.”
The coalition’s statement said that it “is scheduled to release a scorecard by mid-year that will rank progress of countries towards the inclusion of health within national climate commitments—or ‘Healthy NDCs,’ as they prepare for COP26,” the upcoming U.N. summit in Scotland that was delayed due to the ongoing public health crisis.
Miller also recognized the economic impact of the pandemic, and what the crisis has revealed about the existing global system.
“Win-win solutions that both protect health and mitigate climate change have never been more relevant than at this moment of economic fragility. Economic well-being is essential to human health; societies that are more economically equitable—where there is less disparity between the wealthiest and the least wealthy—have better health outcomes for all of their citizens, compared to countries with more extremes of wealth and poverty,” she said. “Greater economic equity brings benefits to everyone’s health.”
“The health impacts of such economic disparity have been laid bare by the pandemic,” she added. “Our most impoverished communities, and low-income countries, also suffer disproportionately from climate change impacts.”
“To help put this right,” she continued, “governments must address the interlinked priorities of health, climate change, economic sustainability, and equity as momentum builds towards COP26 this November, by transforming national climate action commitments into Healthy NDCs that not only include ambitious emissions reductions targets aligned with the Paris agreement, but to also clearly acknowledge and take action to address the relationship between climate change and health, so that people, economies, and the planet can benefit.”
Miller’s comments preceded the release of a new study of health professionals’ perspectives on climate change in The Lancet Planetary Health. According to the coalition, the study “finds that a majority of survey respondents believe the health community should have a say in pushing for national policies that will protect health by meeting the targets of the Paris agreement.”