Climate change and human health

Health issues gain traction at UN Climate Conference

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - Conference of the Parties (COP-17) Nov 28–Dec 9 2011

For the first time since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992, health is gaining notice as a key goal of climate policies and as a priority in climate mitigation and adaptation actions.

Up until recently, the level of health representation in the negotiations has taken very low, usually with just a single side event dedicated to the issue.

This year's meeting, in contrast, hosts the largest health presence to date. Nearly a dozen side events are highlighting different dimensions of the links between health and climate, including a side event on 6 December, co-hosted by the World Health Organization, the Government of South Africa and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The side event, including panellists such as the noted economist Lord Nicholas Stern, advanced a new Framework for Health Adaptation to Climate Change in Africa.

Also on Tuesday, 6 December, WHO launched a major new report on the health benefits of more sustainable transport systems, as part of its "Health in the Green Economy" series. The report highlights the large health and equity benefits that both affluent and poorer countries could reap by shifting to lower-carbon modes of transport, including better rapid-transit systems as well as walking/cycling networks. These measures, the report finds, can help reduce risks from urban air pollution, traffic injuries and the growing burden of noncommunicable diseases associated with physical inactivity.

On Sunday, 4 December, a first-ever "Climate and Health Summit" brought together over 200 health professionals from over 30 civil society organizations and countries in a "Durban Declaration" which calls upon climate negotiators to rapidly advance new and binding climate-mitigation policy measures, for the sake of human health, while also supporting health-oriented adaptation actions, particularly in countries most affected.

The summit, organized by the global NGO Healthcare Without Harm, the UK-based Climate and Health Council, the World Federation of Public Health Associations and the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa also issued a parallel "Climate and Health Call to Action" which calls upon among health professionals worldwide to recognize climate change as a health issue, and advance mitigation and adaptation strategies in health-sector activities and operations.

"The health community has spoken with one voice,” said Dr Maria Neira, Coordinator of WHO's Department of Public Health and Environment, speaking at the Climate and Health Summit. “We need urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop the escalation of health risks. Failure to act would put people’s lives at unacceptable risk, and miss a huge opportunity to protect and promote health.”

Dr Hugh Montgomery of the UK's Climate and Health Council added, "No-one is immune from the health impacts of climate change; people in developed and developing nations are all at risk."

Two other health-focused events occurred on 7 December: a High-level Roundtable on the Health Sectors' plan of action for climate change adaptation, led by the African Development Bank, and a UN joint side event on social dimensions of climate change: Investing in people, tools and country experiences, co-organized by WHO and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

These events reflect the strong and growing engagement of health organizations and professionals in climate-change negotiations. While negotiations about mitigation targets and how to achieve them remains politically contentious, the health community is increasingly uniting around a series of key messages:

  • the necessity for broad, urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop continued erosion of ecosystems that sustain healthy environments and human health;
  • the need to support more climate-resilient health systems; and
  • the opportunity for smarter, more sustainable development to generate immediate health "co-benefits" in a greener, low-carbon economy.

The original 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) cited human health as a key driver of climate actions. However, in the intervening years, health issues have often been put on the back burner by negotiators.

At the same time, evidence of health impacts has continued to mount. Extreme weather and changing patterns of drought and rainfall have already affected a wide range of health risks, from food security and nutrition to patterns of infectious disease transmission. These impacts are most often affected by the world's poorest countries and vulnerable populations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The current COP-17 is the focus of an historic debate on whether to extend, or replace, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which mandated the first binding global targets for reducing emissions of the major greenhouse gases, but which is now due to expire in 2012. The meeting also will decide on the establishment of a Green Climate Fund to support both reductions in greenhouse gas emissions as well as adaptation measures in hard-hit developing countries.