Media centre

New climate change agreement a historic win for human health

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health
Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, WHO Climate Change Lead, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health

Commentary
18 December 2015

For the first time in history, nearly every country in the world has agreed to take action to combat the defining issue of the 21st century – climate change. The Paris Agreement, adopted on 11 December, marks the beginning of a new era in the global response to this threat.

The world now has a climate treaty that will become a public health treaty as countries take action. As stated in the agreement, “the right to health”, will be central to the actions countries take. This is a historic opportunity for WHO and the entire health community.

Nearly a decade in the making, the Paris Agreement not only sets ambitious aims to curb greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming well below 2°C, it pushes countries to develop adaptation plans that will protect human health from the worst impacts of climate change, such as, droughts, heat waves and floods.

Actions cannot be taken without resources. Working together, developed countries have committed to financing clean and resilient futures in countries most vulnerable to climate impacts. Through monitoring and revision of national commitments every five years, the world will begin to see improvements not only in the environment, but also in health, including reductions in the more than 7 million deaths worldwide attributed to air pollution every year.

“The Paris Agreement… pushes countries to develop adaptation plans that will protect human health from the worst impacts of climate change.”

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health

While the world has been late in taking action against climate change, we now have the basic foundation to safeguard the environmental and social conditions on which health depends, including clean air, energy and water.

Now, WHO and the more than 13 million health professionals who added their voices to the call for a safer and healthier future at COP21, need to build on this foundation. Fortunately, we’ve already begun.

Building resilient health systems

In collaboration with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat, we launched the first 15 Climate Change and Health Country Profiles ahead of COP21 to provide countries up-to-date information about the current and future impacts of climate change on human health and current policy responses.

Now, we’re working to produce a profile for every country so that they can use them to track their 5-year progress moving forward. We know that what gets measured gets done so we must give countries the tools to help them reach their Paris commitments, and raise their ambition even further.

Next, WHO is working with countries to build climate resilient health systems, meaning that when climate-related disasters strike, or environmental conditions are gradually degraded, health systems are able to face the challenges head-on. For example, WHO is already working to put into place heat-health warning systems to save lives during heatwaves, and piloting climate-resilient water-safety plans, so that when floods and droughts hit, this doesn’t lead to outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases.

Beyond making health facilities climate resilient, we also need to ensure all facilities have access to clean energy. Much of the world’s health facilities still lack electricity, meaning vulnerable populations are without access to life-saving medical technologies. Supported by the new agreement, we will be able to scale-up our role in the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, which aims to achieving universal access to energy by 2030.

At this year’s World Health Assembly countries agreed to a resolution to address the health impacts of air pollution. In line with this agreement, the WHO secretariat is scaling up its capacity to help countries implement WHO’s outdoor and indoor air quality guidelines. It is also launching an urban health initiative in four cities early next year to test strategies for reducing short-lived climate pollutants, such as black carbon and methane.

This is just the start of a comprehensive approach to urban health, that will link WHO with our partner UN agencies in a comprehensive initiative to combat climate change, and promote sustainable development, in cities around the world.

These are the first steps we are taking. The the road ahead is far from easy, but we’re excited to have the whole world focused on taking actions to create a healthier planet and people.