Analysis

Our planet, our health: at the crossroads to a #HealthierTomorrow

Julie Henri

“Our planet, our health” is the theme of this year’s World Health Day.  MHP Mischief’s Julie Henri, with a comment from Professor Sir Andy Haines, Co-chair of the Pathfinder Initiative and Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health at LSHTM, talk about the need for urgent action to build a #HealthierTomorrow that benefit both the planet and the people who live on it and why we should be hopeful for the future.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the third and final section of its comprehensive review of climate science this week, their message is unequivocal: we are running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5C.

The world is reaching a number of climate tipping points, which could have unreversible consequences on our planet and our health.

On this year’s World Health Day, we are at a crossroads.  There is still time to reverse the course of our actions to build a #HealthierTomorrow, but this can only be achieved through a rapid shift in the way we structure our societies and economies.

Throughout COP26, the phrase “the climate crisis is a health crisis” became part of the mainstream discourse.  It was championed by public figures, key opinion leaders and businesses, from Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid, to President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow Dr Jackie Taylor and pharmaceutical company Takeda.

This might be because we have experienced the consequences of public health and climate change first hand during the COVID-19 pandemic, or because all the latest evidence on climate change points to the same conclusion: our health depends on the health of our planet and the health of our planet depends on how we, humans, treat it.

According to WHO’s estimates, more than 13 million people die from avoidable environmental causes every year.  No less than 90 per cent of people breathe unhealthy air polluted by burning of fossil fuels which increases the risk of lung cancer, heart diseases and stroke, killing 13 people every minute.

In recent years, this gloomy reality has been reflected in the way we record deaths.  In 2019, scientists proved for the first time that the people who died from the 2018 heat wave in Japan were the “first provable deaths of climate change”.  In December 2020, the UK recognised its first death caused by air pollution, after a nine-year-old girl from South London died from an asthma attack.  Most recently, in January 2022 the Office for National Statistics published its first statistics on climate-related mortality and hospital admissions in England and Wales between 2001 and 2020.

While this picture might seem bleak, there is a lot to be hopeful for as initiatives all around the world focus their efforts on keeping humans and the planet healthy.

Since May 2021, MHP Mischief has been working with the Pathfinder Initiative, an ambitious coalition led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and some of the best scientific and policy institutions. [i]  Together, they show the world how well-designed climate change actions can benefit both the planet and population health.

Sir Andy Haines, Co-chair of the Pathfinder Initiative and Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health at LSHTM, shares his views on this year’s theme for World Health Day:

“The WHO’s decision to focus World Health Day this year on the theme “our planet, our health” signals the need for urgent, global action to address the climate crisis and in doing so protect human health.  While the health impacts of climate change are increasingly well-recognised, less emphasis has been placed on the potential health benefits of climate mitigation policies.  Greater awareness of these benefits is needed to help catalyse change and build momentum towards net zero.  Evaluation of the impacts of our efforts is essential to ensure that equitable benefits are achieved in practice.

The Pathfinder Initiative aims to address these information gaps and show how effective climate action can bring benefits to both the environment and human health.  Through showcasing examples of best practice in implementing solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions while improving health, we hope to encourage others to take action and join the movement towards a healthy, zero-carbon future.”

Ultimately, our impact on the planet’s health is driven by political, social and economic decisions.

If we rethink the way our societies and economies work, we could build sustainable societies: where wealth is distributed more equally, where people can breathe healthier air and eat healthier diets that benefit both the health of our planet and the people who live on it and where well-designed and measured climate change solutions are put at the heart of national and international policies.

We are now at a crossroads where the pledges made by governments and businesses need to translate into actions and decision-makers should learn from existing initiatives that already get us closer to a #HealthierTomorrow.

For further reading, please read the blog by Sir Andy Haines explaining the urgency of climate action to protect our planet and our health and highlighting six shifts towards a #HealthierTomorrow here.

[i] The Initiative is led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Oak Foundation.  It includes C40 Cities, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), CDP, the OECD and the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research.