Health and wellbeing are the foundations upon which societies and economies thrive. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a forceful reminder of that relationship, catalyzed health to the forefront of the global political and economic agenda, and reminded us of our interdependence with the natural world.
Our Planet, Our Health is the theme of World Health Day 2022. So, what is the relationship between human health and natural systems, and how can understanding this link drive accelerated action towards a net-zero, nature positive and equitable future?
What is the relationship between human health and natural systems?
The planet is in crisis because human activities are driving drastic changes to the biosphere and disrupting many natural systems. The unfolding climate crisis, widespread pollution and the unprecedented loss of nature are fundamentally changing the foundational conditions for people to live healthy lives – from safe air quality, safe drinking water, nutritious food, to protection from infectious diseases and extreme weather events (more). As a result, the global burden of disease is rising and the health of people is severely compromised, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable.
- The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 13 million people die each year from health issues associated with an unhealthy environment.
- Air pollution alone is responsible for about 9 million deaths per year as a result from heart disease, strokes, pulmonary disease, asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory infections. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional annual deaths from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.
- Already today, weather related emergencies displace more than 20 million people a year and there are estimates that as many as 1.2 billion people could be displaced by climate change by 2050.
While there are calls to strengthen global frameworks for a net-zero, nature-positive and more equitable future, the explicit link to health is often neglected. However, the rapidly growing field of planetary health is providing the scientific evidence on the relationship between the environment and human health, as well as the urgent actions needed to secure a livable and equitable future. It provides us with a new lens through which to identify ways to step up ambitious action on climate and nature, and deliver co-benefits for human health.
Health is increasingly shaping the climate, nature and equity conversation
While often overlooked in the past, the inextricable link between the health of people and planet is fast moving to the forefront of the dialogue on sustainability, and is proving a persuasive accelerator of action.
Over the last few months, there has been an outcry for change from healthcare professionals and the wider health community worldwide who are experiencing the overwhelming impacts on the front line. Key developments include:
- In September 2021, more than 200 health journals came together to ring the alarm and warned: “The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5C and to restore nature.”
- This message was reinforced ahead of COP26 in the Healthy Climate Prescription, an open letter of some 46 million health workers calling to make human health and equity central to climate change mitigation and adaptation.
- Last October, the United Nations Human Rights Council have declared ‘Access to a healthy environment’ a human right.
- The United States Government opened a new federal office for climate change, health and equity to address the health consequences of climate change and their disproportionate effects on poor communities.
To raise awareness and to discuss about the role of the private sector and other stakeholders, GSK, Business for Nature and WBCSD came together with some 30 stakeholders – including companies from all sectors and geographies - as part of the pre-COP15 meetings in Geneva in March.
The discussions confirmed health as a powerful argument for more comprehensive action on nature and climate because it simplifies what can be a complex topic, and connects people to the issue in a tangible way. There is significant opportunity to elevate the issue of health and recognize investments in nature as investment in disease prevention and building resilience.
“At GSK, we’re focusing on solutions for climate change and nature loss that are also drivers of human health. We need a healthier planet where we can all lead healthier lives. We know that taking actions to do so will make our business more resilient and support growth in the long term,” emphasized Claire Lund, VP Sustainability at GSK.
“2022 looks set to be a pivotal year to position health as integral to the global dialogue on nature and climate. With a view to COP27, more collaborative efforts are needed to mainstream business action at the nexus of climate, nature and health,” added Tom Williams, Senior Director Nature Action Imperative at WBCSD.
At the same time, the apparent fragmentation of sustainability agendas, standards and environmental policies, as well as the resulting organizational silos, stand in the way of incorporating health impacts more holistically.
How can business drive accelerated and impactful action?
All businesses in all sectors have a role to play in ensuring solutions for climate change and nature loss are also drivers of human health. Businesses who have already started their sustainability journey will find that they are not starting from scratch and that their existing environmental and social initiatives are already generating often unrecognized health co-benefits. For example, a program that develops degraded land into urban green spaces may not specifically aim to improve physical and mental health. Yet, by sequestering carbon and improving air quality, new green spaces will benefit lung health and support good mental health.
The scientific evidence emerging from the field of planetary health can inform businesses’ sustainability strategies and unlock opportunities for more cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary collaboration. By advocating for the inclusion of health as a key component of effective climate and environmental policies, businesses can connect the social and environmental domains of sustainability. Proactively embedding strategies to prioritize health co-benefits are crucial to mitigating risk and adapting to the irreversible impacts of climate change and nature loss. This will help business accelerate their net-zero and nature-positive programs, reduce health inequalities, and develop business strategies that are future-proof.
We can no longer see the health of the planet and the health of the human population as disconnected. Businesses play a crucial role in leading impactful action, advocating for change and communicating and working in partnership with their stakeholders.
WBCSD’s Healthy People, Healthy Business project will continue collaborative efforts to identify practical paths that businesses from all sectors can take in leading efforts that raise awareness of this issue, build new (public-private) partnerships, integrate health more prominently into decision-making to drive co-benefits for people and planet. We expect this work to result in guidance for businesses and serve as a platform for engagement with a view to COP27 in November of this year.
For more information on this work and how to get involved contact WBCSD’s Health and Wellbeing Manager, Uta Jungermann.