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Health professionals step up to climate change

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, head of Climate Change and Health, presents WHO’s first report on health and climate change in Geneva in 2019. (Photo: Keystone/Martial Trezzini)

As a growing number of countries  commit to carbon neutrality, the UK’s NHS this month became the world’s first national health service to follow suit. Is the global health sector finally stepping up to act on climate?

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum is head of the climate change and health unit at the World Health Organisation (WHO). He specialised in the ecology of infectious disease and public health, and has worked on climate change and health for 20 years. He is also a lead author of several reports, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Extreme Events and the first health report to the UN Climate Negotiations.

 GS: The NHS’s ambitious plan for "Net Zero" carbon emissions by 2040 is the first of its kind for a public health administration. Can this example have a knock-on effect on other health services and all other public services?

DC: I think it’s clear that it can have both a knock-on effect and be an example to others. The NHS England is particularly important because it is the single largest health service in the world. If they are able to decarbonise, that is a significant contributor to lowering greenhouse gas emissions both within the UK and globally.

Health care as a sector is responsible for about 10 per cent of the global economy and about 5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions so it really matters what the health sector does in terms of carbon emissions. But it matters even more since they serve as an example to others. Health services are the definition of a frontline service. They work to protect people and they can't neglect their day job. If the largest health service in the world can do that at the same time as cutting carbon emissions, which must be an example for health services around the world.

GS: Why do health institutions have a particular responsibility to follow science-based targets on climate? What are the big links between climate and health?

DC: All human health ultimately depends on the health of the natural environment. That is what allows us to produce our food, provides us with clean air, clean water and so on. Although health institutions and professionals often focus in treating people, it’s ultimately at least as important we protect the environment in order to stop people from getting sick in the first place. The WHO has highlighted that climate change is potentially the greatest health threat of the 21st century and that is because climate change threatens to undermine supplies of food, water, protection from natural disasters and is likely to affect infectious diseases as well.

GS: What are the benefits of climate action for people's health? Can sustainable solutions help on both accounts and fulfil two goals at the same time?

DC: Almost everything that we need to do to cut carbon emissions and reduce climate change can also bring benefits for health. Currently there are about 7 million deaths a year attributable to air pollution and about two thirds of the ones that are caused by outdoor air pollution come from burning of fossil fuels. The shift that we make to clean energy solutions, to sustainable transport systems or food systems, will bring immediate and very large health benefits that would in fact already pay for the cost of mitigation.

GS: Health professionals are among the most trusted professions in the world but, despite the foreseeable impacts of the climate emergency on health, they are less mobilised than scientists or environmentalists on tackling the issue. What are the obstacles and how can they be overcome?

DC: In the past, health professionals have been passive supporters of action on climate change. They recognise the risks, but health professionals are already highly over stretched and health services are basically set up to treat people when they're already ill. So they have perhaps been slow to take time out from their immediate tasks to advocate for climate action. That is now changing. For example, before the last G20 summit, organisations representing millions of health care professionals wrote a letter to the G20 to say that we need to act on climate change, including for health. This would never have happened five years ago, so despite the massive strain on health care professionals, they are now stepping up in terms of activism on climate.

GS: With the climate countdown ticking and less than 20 years to reach the stock of accumulated carbon for 2°C, how can the health sector become a vector for accelerated change and contribute to the social tipping points needed to avert the worst climate scenarios?

DC: That social tipping point is starting to happen. There are very large majorities basically in every country in the world in favour of climate action, including in the US, which is often quoted as one of the sceptical countries.

There are two ways in which the health sector can become a vector. The first one is to lead by example, as the NHS is doing. The fact that the largest health care system in the world has not only pledged to become carbon neutral but published a plan and announced it should be the example that can be provided to other public sector institutions and society as a whole.

The second one is to continue to speak out about this. Evidence and receiving the message from highly trusted people are what contributes to changing people's mind. As you mentioned, nobody is more trusted than doctors and nurses, so their voice is critically important. They are also in many ways neutral on environmental issues since they're not environmentalists and they're not going to profit from this. They are speaking up because they think this is what needs to be done to protect people and their families. That is the kind of message that sticks home in people’s minds.