improve global health
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While the 25th UN Climate Conference (COP25) creates solutions to the climate crisis, let’s discuss how climate policy can protect and improve global health

Highly effectful implementation of policy can be thought of like a blue moon, seen once every often. How can a person make the blue moon appear?

Global gatherings like COP25 seek to understand where the failures in implementation are, and how to fix them, with the input of governments, institutions and individuals who are all impacted by the climate. This year, individuals like Greta Thunberg, who leads the younger generation into a new age of environmental awareness also have a seat at the table.

Everyone is also here to figure out how to navigate the ongoing impacts and push the limits of what actions are possible on a global scale.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is in attendance and has dual suggestions, focused on their personal mandate of improving global health and the parallel necessity of reversing climate change before it becomes truly irreversible.

Here, we discuss the five ideas they put forward for COP25 to take home and implement, aimed at governments, businesses and financial actors.

What are five climate-health ideas put forward by the WHO?

1. Following the WHO Clean Air Initiative

Outdoor air pollution is largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels, at around two-thirds of it coming directly from that. It kills over 7 million people a year, with most of the top ten polluted cities being in India in a 2018 survey of particulate matter levels. The level of exposure for those who are homeless in cities like this is unavoidably high. Living for a long time and living in good health has become a socio-economic trait.

improve global health, WHO
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The WHO initiative on Clean Air asks countries to commit to their air quality policies, and to implement them, by 2030.

After the UN Climate Action summit in September 2019, over 50 national and 80 subnational governments (with a hefty combined population of over a billion) joined the Clean Air Initiative.

You can join the Clean Air Initiative here.

2. Fighting climate-health risks with serious money

Currently, only 0.5% of multilateral climate finance is being given to health protection. The WHO encourage financial actors to focus their investments, on supporting cost-effective climate-resilient health systems that can globally protect people. The impact of carbon emissions on public health are just beginning to be recognised by institutions, who continue to issue warnings supported by science.

In an article discussing the complexities of air pollution on health, a research team in the UK said:

“Within the general population, there are groups which are particularly susceptible to chemical/pollutant toxicity and where the consequences of exposure are most profound. Of particular importance but still only studied to a limited extent, are prenatal and postnatal exposure.

“Exposure of pregnant women to pollution, particularly during the first trimester, is associated with lower infant head size during gestation and at birth, increased intra-uterine growth restriction and low birth weight.”

improve public health, WHO
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The WHO helped in the creation of a philanthropic fund that tackles air pollution, which they describe as a “great first step.” However, they urge people to focus on financing more health systems.

3. More health intervention in the Paris Agreement

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement are what each State must do to fulfil their role in saving the planet and their people. Whilst there is a great level of focus on health as a concept (around two-thirds of the NDCs touching on why it is so important) the actual implementation side of the NDCs, risk disappointing the world and staying in blue-moon territory.

To improve global health, the benefits of climate actions as listed in the Paris Agreement should also describe the parallel health benefits – such as healthier pregnancies and less lung diseases, more shelter and fewer water-borne diseases. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year – from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

There are only one fifth of the NDCs discussing health in the context of mitigation, which does not put nearly enough onus on States to implement. Left to their own devices with the least binding of directions, health systems would not update themselves to survive climate risks before 2030.

The WHO firmly believe that the Paris Agreement could be “the strongest international health agreement of the century”, if it asked governments to really consider health consequences and act on them.

Learn more about the close connection of health and climate change, and how to reflect this in NDCs.

4. National policies for climate health that have teeth

Only 53% of governments reported a high to moderate level of implementation in their national health and climate change strategies, with less than 10% showing that they had a sufficient budget to genuinely cover the costs of implementation. This data comes from a WHO survey of 101 governments, with only half of those saying they had developed a strategy at all.

In the UK, the British Medical Association (BMA) suggest that the NHS monitor their energy output and report the data against their Sustainable Development Management Plans. Since the NHS covers the entire UK, it is an energy-intensive organisation, much beloved and much used. It exists but it needs to rise up to climate-risk resilience at the behest of the State. With the country in pre-election mode, this seems unlikely to happen soon.

improve public health, WHO
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The Paris Agreement can only work to protect the vulnerable if all levels of government focus on solving health impacts. WHO recommend participation in their monitoring of national progress on health and climate change, via their collection of climate-risk data. They further suggest cross-ministerial collaboration to carry out Vulnerability and Adaption assessments (V&As) and develop health components of National Adaption Plans (H-NAPS).

5. Tell the world about climate action health benefits

The financial value of health gains from climate policy actions are twice as large as the cost of mitigation. Intervention before the necessity of mitigation is always for the best, especially for meeting 2030 climate goals in a cost-effective way.

The Paris Agreement is currently set to save around one million lives a year globally, purely based on air pollution measures and leading up to 2050. If governments and institutions highlight how much money can be saved by early action instead of cleaning up after the fact, then there would be strong argument for allocating public resources to this climate-health intervention. If recognised health bodies in countries explained the necessity for climate action, it would become a public issue, instead of a niche one attributed to young followers of Greta Thunberg.

Quantify the health and economic consequences from domestic carbon reductions, e.g. by using WHO’s CarbonH tool, and connect to the growing worldwide community of health advocates for climate action, for example through the WHO-Civil Society Working Group on Climate Change and Health.


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