28 September 2021: As part of Climate Week NYC 2021, on 22 September the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) brought together business leaders and scientific experts for a virtual discussion around how human health intersects with the climate and nature crisis and how business can play a critical key role in advancing solutions to maximize health co-benefits of working towards a net-zero, nature positive and equitable future.
Grounding the discussion in the latest science, Marie Studer, Senior Program Manager at the Planetary Health Alliance, explained how human activities are driving fundamental changes to the biosphere and disrupting many of our planet’s natural systems. Factors such as the unfolding climate crisis, widespread pollution, exponential consumption patterns, unprecedented levels of biodiversity loss, and pervasive changes in land use and cover threaten nearly every dimension of human health and wellbeing.
As the planetary emergency continues to unfold, we face a litany of health risks that look set to place an ever-growing burden on healthcare systems and services across the world. These risks include exponential rises in incidences of malnutrition, heat stress, infectious and non-communicable disease, displacement and conflict, and negative mental health impacts. With clear scientific data, Marie underscored the urgency to protect natural systems to protect people to avert an existential crisis for humankind.
Shifting the discussion towards the role of business, James Gomme, Director of People & Society at WBCSD, then provided insight into WBCSD’s Vision 2050: Time to transform which provides a framework for business to lead the transformations needed to realize a world in which more than nine billion people live well, within planetary boundaries, by 2050.
At the heart of this framework are nine transformation pathways covering the areas of business activity that are essential to society, including a dedicated pathway on health and wellbeing. With the understanding that business has a key role to play in helping to realize a world where all people have the highest attainable standard of health and wellbeing, WBCSD is working to operationalize this pathway and to position health more centrally into its work. In particular WBCSD’s Healthy People, Healthy Business project is working to establish a cross-cutting narrative around the role of businesses from all sectors in supporting health and wellbeing while also highlighting the interdependence of human health and natural systems.
Against this backdrop, Claire Lund, Global Vice President Sustainability, GSK; Jennifer Wright, Director, Global EHS & Sustainability, Biogen; Jim Goudreau, Head of Environmental Sustainability External Engagement, Novartis and Marie Studer exchanged their perspectives on the role of business at the nexus of health, climate and nature.
Recognizing that burning fossil fuels drives pollution, morbidity and mortality, disproportionally impacting vulnerable communities, Jennifer Wright shared insights regarding Biogen’s efforts to fully decarbonize its operations by 2040 as part of their Healthy Climate Healthy Lives initiative, aiming to tackle climate, health and equity.
Claire Lund outlined GSK’s twin commitment to achieving net-zero impact on climate and net positive impact on nature by 2030 and emphasized the need to address the complexity and interrelationships, and collaborate to move faster.
In recognition of how fast the changes are accelerating, Jim Goudreau added that Novartis has stepped up its ambition to become carbon neutral across its entire value chain by 2030. He echoed the need to take a healthcare system perspective and support suppliers in their mitigation efforts.
With a view out to COP 26 in Glasgow where the relationship between climate and health is set to be a key topic for discussion, Jennifer Wright stressed that “health is material to everyone and that framing the conversations around climate change, planetary health, and humankind will be a key lens for governments to apply to their discussions.”
Marie Studer added that “COP26 really has no way around recognizing that health is a central issue to the climate crisis that needs to be addressed urgently.” At the same time, she underscored “that if we narrow our focus too much, we will get the diagnosis wrong, which means we'll get the overall treatment wrong. We need to keep our attention on all the other drivers of change to make sure that the planet has intact, well-functioning natural systems to ensure the health and well-being of all people, everywhere.”
Jim Goudreau rounded up the discussion by highlighting the need for courageous leadership moving forward: “We really need to change our mindset. We need to have courage and optimism. The topic is scary and it’s easy to get bogged down in the details and get discouraged. We have to have the courage to engage leadership and have frank conversations.”