Conversations on the health impacts of the climate crisis have grown this year at COP26 – the United Nation’s annual climate conference, now in its 26th year. Experts hope that this will lead to greater awareness about the health crisis exacerbated by the climate crisis and lead to concrete action.
Around 85% of countries now have a designated focal point for health and climate change in their ministries of health, according to the 2021 World Health Organisation (WHO) health and climate change global survey report released on Monday.
But countries report that a lack of funding, impact of COVID-19, and insufficient resource capacity are major barriers to progress. Many countries are unsupported and unprepared to deal with the health impacts of climate change, according to the survey.
“We are here at COP26 to urge the world to better support countries in need, and to ensure that together we do a better job of protecting people from the biggest threat to human health we face today,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
At the sidelines of the climate negotiations, the WHO held a day-long conference focused on the climate and health nexus.
“We are used to talking about climate as an environmental challenge, an economic challenge, an equity challenge. But it is also one of the most urgent health challenges facing us all today,” Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and Chair of Wellcome Trust, said at the event.
The conference sought to highlight that while climate change affects health, mitigation strategies will also automatically translate into health gains.
“Health must become the beating heart of climate action”, said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. “Political leaders must prioritise health and social equity, emission reduction and impact mitigation over politics, profit and unproven technological fixes. The decisions made during COP26 will define the health and wellbeing of people all over the world for decades to come”.
Highlighting the health gains of clean air
In the first week of the COP26 negotiations, WHO also co-hosted a panel discussion on both the health and climate gains of clean air that this reporter helped moderate. Given that air pollution alone kills around seven million people worldwide every year, any progress on this would save millions of lives annually.
The event also came at a time when air pollution in India’s capital, Delhi, had reached lethal levels following last week’s celebration of Diwali, during which people set off fire crackers.
The densely populated Indo-Gangetic plain where Delhi is, is one of the world’s most polluted regions, and emerging research suggests the source of air pollution is local.
Dr Neira said that the time for conversations was over, the evidence on air pollution is clear and it is time now to act.
As many of the pollutants that cause air pollution also lead to global warming, the WHO has made efforts to highlight the dual climate and health gains of improving air quality that disproportionately affects vulnerable groups like children and the elderly.
Developing countries are pushing for climate finance and technology transfer at COP so that they have the support they need to clean their air but much of this also needs to happen at sub-national levels, especially at city-level, that will also require local action, highlighted Aniruddha Dasgupta, President and CEO of World Resources Institute (WRI).
Health not a part of negotiations
It was clear though that while health is a part of the growing conversation, it is far from figuring in the main climate negotiations. A former negotiator elaborated that, given how bitter and exhausting climate negotiations are, adding health to the text might not be practical and that any reduction in global carbon emissions will automatically translate into health gains.
At this year’s COP there is also a push to hold the rich countries accountable for the loss and damage being caused by the climate crisis in vulnerable nations. Public health crises, even though directly caused or exacerbated by extreme climate events, aren’t part of these negotiations either.
“I don’t see it coming up very directly into the loss and damage negotiations here because the negotiations are more about the overarching structures, not necessarily on a very particular theme,” said Sven Harmeling, the International Climate Policy Lead, from CARE and CAN Europe. He did add that it does factor in how many of the developing countries think about the damages being caused.
WHO’s latest survey backs his view. It found that virtually all (94%) countries have incorporated health considerations in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement, voluntary pledges by the government to reduce their carbon emissions.
Highlighting emissions from healthcare and silos
The conversations at COP26 included how to get the healthcare sector to reduce its own emissions. A 2019 report from Healthcare Without Harm based on 2014 data on carbon emissions suggests that globally 4.4% of carbon emissions are from the healthcare sector itself. The US health sector had the largest greenhouse gas emissions.
Andrea Epstein, climate programme manager for Latin America at Healthcare Without Harm said that number is probably higher now that despite the region being a part of the developing world. There is a growing interest in decarbonising healthcare systems. “The problem is of course the means of implementation. Not just the financing and the technology but also having the capacity for that. So while it is a challenge, the interest is there.”
Members of civil society organisations present at COP highlighted the silos that continued to exist in conversations around health, climate and food – all of which affect each other but are handled by different organisations.
This story was originally published in Health Policy Watch on November 9, 2021. It was produced as part of the 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organised by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.
Banner image: WHO Director-General Dr Tedros receiving an open letter about climate change, signed by health professionals from around the world and organized by Doctors for XR.