The NGO Health Perspective at the UN Climate Summit

Written by Genon K. Jensen
Executive Director, Health and Environment Alliance

Genon JensenOn Tuesday, 23 September, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is bringing together 122 heads of state in New York for a climate summit. Health leaders, including the Global Health and Climate Alliance (GHCA), in which HEAL is a founding member, will tell the meeting that:

  • climate change poses significant threats to health BUT that
  • ending our dependency on fossil fuels, the cause of climate change, can help tackle both climate change and the rise in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke, and asthma.

In Europe, we are proud to be one of the first regions of the world in which policy to address the climate challenge is framed as positive for health. In 2010, HEAL’s climate and health report showed that strong action to mitigate climate change would reduce not only greenhouse gas emissions but air pollution as well thus resulting in massive health benefits. The economic assessment of these health benefits provided European policymakers with a persuasive additional argument in favour of climate action.

At the UN Summit, the health community will offer concrete examples of a range of investments that will mitigate climate change and benefit health. The main approach is to favour a move away from coal and other fossil fuels and towards clean energy to help avoid millions of early deaths through improved air quality. Another is “active transportation”, which highlights how extending opportunities to walk and cycle can produce significant physical and mental health benefits, as well as reducing air pollution. The ActiveEarth initiative, to be launched at the civil society event, will show how large these cost savings can be. Such smart investments, which produce health benefits, mean that climate policies need not harm economies, as discussed by the New Climate Economy report, ‘Better Growth, Better Climate’.

While positive arguments are extremely important, they do not necessarily create the needed sense of urgency. It is also important to show the harm to health from burning coal and other fossil fuels to help build awareness that long-term dependence is simply unacceptable. Within the health community, HEAL and GCHA have welcomed the recent decision of members of the British Medical Association, which voted in favour of an end to its investments in fossil fuels in June this year, and of HESTA (the Health Employees’ Superannuation Trust Australia), which announced a restriction on investments in thermal coal last week.

The World Health Organization is also making climate change a mainstream health concern. Director General Margaret Chan has called climate change “a defining issue of the 21st century.” At a recent WHO meeting on climate change, a number of health NGOs, coordinated by the GCHA, released a call to action emphasising the need for health organisations to consider the climate and health impacts of their investments, and make investment choices that benefit both health and climate by reducing local air pollution, helping to build low-carbon health systems, and strengthening community resilience.

The move to renewable sources of energy can help the fight against climate change and protect the world from an enormous future health burden. As Christiana Figueres, chair of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said during the WHO meeting, “climate change is not the equivalent of a disease: it is a symptom. The cause is our unbridled dependence on fossil fuels.” We know that we cannot safely burn the majority of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves; if we do, the health impacts will be immense. A transition to renewable energy both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and offers substantial short-term health benefits, saving billions of dollars in healthcare costs, particularly by reducing air pollution.

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