The OECD Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—to exchange expertise and perspectives across sectors.
The OECD Forum Virtual Event The Climate & Health Nexus will take place on 16 November, 2022 from 1300 to 1400 CET—register your place now!
In 2021, a letter signed by organisations representing 47 million global health professionals declared the climate crisis “the single biggest health threat facing humanity”. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 2030 and 2050, at least 250,000 additional deaths will occur every year as a result of climate change.
The effects of climate change further exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities, including poor air, food and housing quality, disproportionately harming the health of disadvantaged populations. Young children, pregnant women, older adults, people with chronic illnesses and disabilities and those with fewer resources in general all face a higher level of risk.
Climate mitigation policies such as addressing air pollution can help reduce the burden of disease from a very wide variety of illnesses, including heart and lung diseases, cancer, diabetes, and possibly even dementia.
It is crucial to make sure that measures taken to deal with key global challenges—including the impact of Russia’s war of aggression in the Ukraine on energy and food security, the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to the net-zero economy—are not only consistent but reinforce each other.
As the OECD and member governments focus on these challenges, we also have the opportunity to simultaneously ensure that these programmes generate concrete health benefits. The Lancet Planetary Health 2018 report estimated that the economic value of health co-benefits could partly—and sometimes even wholly—offset the costs of climate mitigation. Being clearer about the fact that climate change is a critical health issue and capitalising on the potential to address health and climate priorities in unison is a powerful lever for action towards a healthy, net-zero future.
In January 2022, the OECD Forum launched a multi-stakeholder initiative, the OECD Forum Engagement Group on Climate & Health, to help drive and support more ambitious, effective and co-ordinated action on climate change, taking into consideration its impact on health. The Group orients its workstreams to address climate change and its resulting health impact, recognising that transformative change is needed across many sectors—including in healthcare, food and urban living.
Resilient Health Systems
Greening requires rethinking multiple aspects of the current health system, given that the health sector itself contributes to 4–5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Forty-four countries have now agreed to transition to more sustainable and low-carbon health systems, making commitments to use 100% clean, renewable electricity; investing in zero-emissions buildings and infrastructure; promoting sustainable travel and transport; incentivising and producing low-carbon pharmaceuticals; and providing healthy, sustainable, locally-grown food in healthcare settings. The sector is also committing to decarbonising the complex, global health supply chains that include medicines and medical equipment. But there remains a lack of detail on exactly how the transition will be achieved.
Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and better preparation for future health emergencies, as well as trends such as population ageing, are predicted to increase both health needs and costs. Reducing demand for healthcare through preventative and strong public health measures is indispensable. Promoting healthier lifestyles and diets have the potential to prevent thousands of cases of non-communicable disease per year across OECD countries. Policies such as greener food production and urban redesign that encourages physical activity have beneficial effects both for the health of populations and for environmental sustainably. Reorganising healthcare with a focus on primary and community-based care could pre-empt carbon intensive hospital services: one “low intensity” hospitalisation generates as many greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as 35 primary care consultations. Reducing the need for medicines and avoiding over prescription has also been identified as a high-impact area for greening health systems. The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom estimates that medicines account for around 25% of GHG emissions within the NHS. Finally, health systems will need to harness digitalisation and the potential for telemedicine to increase the accessibility and sustainability of health systems while decreasing its carbon footprint.
More on the Forum Network: In the Race to Save a Warming Planet, Health Care Has a Job to Do by Reggie Williams and Lovisa Gustafsson, Commonwealth Fund
Sustainable & Healthy Food
Food systems face the significant challenge of feeding a growing world population while also having to manage increasing limitations on resources such as land, energy and water. There is a pressing need for investment in innovation and R&D. The OECD estimates that for every dollar invested, there is a ten-dollar return for society in the long term. Investment also presents an opportunity to increase efficiencies and simultaneously promote nature-based solutions, addressing current weaknesses such as dependence on fertilisers and loss of biodiversity, which could lead to a high cost to human health by increasing the risk of zoonotic transfer.
Investing in better farming practices, focusing on crops best suited for a particular climate and on soil health, is also key. Soils are made in part of broken-down plant matter. This means they contain a lot of carbon that plants took in from the atmosphere while they were alive. If not for soil, this carbon would return to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2). Healthy soil can store more carbon and absorb more water, making it more resilient.
Targeted investment in innovation would also help increase the nutritional value of food, making healthier food more accessible and affordable. Innovation in food systems can also be accelerated by harnessing pre-existing community-based knowledge, and leveraging the potential of the digital transformation.
Approximately half of the world's population resides in cities, with this figure projected to rise until 2050. Cities are also responsible for generating over 70% of GHG emissions and consuming over two-thirds of global energy. Nine-out-of-ten people, particularly those living in cities, are breathing air below quality standards the WHO considers to be healthy, leading to 7 million premature deaths every year. In addition to deteriorating air quality, unprecedented heatwaves are affecting millions of city dwellers, with some calling heatwaves the “deadliest of all climate risks”. OECD research indicates that heat risk is strongly correlated with income levels, with the lowest income areas experiencing the highest levels of heat stress due to poorly constructed buildings and less ventilation.
Similarly, disadvantaged neighbourhoods are prone to higher exposure to air pollution. To combat air pollution, many cities are turning towards the decarbonisation of buildings, including installing higher performance windows, more efficient lighting and heating, and photovoltaic (solar) panels. Estimates show that decarbonisation of buildings could result in an annual EUR 190 billion reduction in air-pollution related healthcare expenditures in the EU. The shift from a linear economy to a circular economy in cities could save EUR 600 billion in the EU by 2030 in terms of energy and water use. Many initiatives are underway to develop more sustainable cities, such as placing solar panels on top of buildings to supplement renewable energy supply and streamlining delivery routes and methods to reduce the need for vehicle drop-offs. Local and national governments are also making an effort to make cities more resilient by introducing more climate friendly initiatives, such as the 15-minute city concept which ensures that essential services are accessible by foot or cycling within 15-minutes. Moreover, several national COVID-19 recovery funding packages prioritise sustainable urban development.