CSH @ COP26 – making the links between climate and health

“We live with nature, we depend on nature, and we need to look after nature if we are to live.” – Espen Barth Eide, Norway's Minister for Climate and the Environment at COP26

Climate change is increasingly being recognised as a threat to global public health, and climate adaptation was one of the four major topics for the COP26 negotiations, which concluded last week in Glasgow. The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare (CSH) was granted official observer status at the talks, meaning our staff members and associates who attended were able to analyse plans and propose targets and solutions.

This year’s summit saw the launch of the World Health Organization’s Health Pavilion, which staged events featuring presentations and discussions with health professionals from around the world, including delegates from CSH. Topics for discussion included how health systems will build resilience and adapt to the increased burden of climate-related morbidity and mortality.

“A child growing up in Warsaw today will inhale the equivalent of 1000 cigarettes in the first year of his or her life due to air pollution from burning fossil fuels. A clear message that the climate crisis is a health crisis.” – Al Gore

As long ago as 2009, the UCL-Lancet Commission on Climate Change and Health concluded that climate change is the most significant public health threat of this century, while the WHO predicts wide-reaching and catastrophic health consequences of a global temperature rise of over 2°C. These health impacts will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children, ethnic minorities, older populations and those with chronic illness.

Throughout the fortnight of talks, nature-based solutions were discussed as a means of combatting climate change. They are also a means of reducing these social inequalities, and providing direct health benefits to vulnerable populations. As the name suggests, nature-based solutions are strategies which involve working with nature through the protection, restoration and management of ecosystems, to benefit people and biodiversity. These ecosystems can comprise anything from rainforests and oceans to farmland and urban green spaces.

As well as having the potential to provide up to 37% of the reductions in CO2 emissions that are needed to keep global warming below 2°C, nature-based solutions have various benefits in terms of health and wellbeing particularly for vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. Urban green space in particular can generate cleaner air, contribute to climate resilient communities, and provide access to spaces which promote physical and mental health.

“Despite the importance of nature and nature-based solutions, they receive only about 3% of total climate finance” – Lord Goldsmith, Minister for the Pacific and the International Environment

Despite the multiple nested benefits of green spaces, the financial commitment to support nature is not yet being made. Much of the discussion on climate change so far focuses on greenhouse gas emissions targets; it is revealing, for example, that the UN’s global Biodiversity COP (the Convention on Biological Diversity), held every two years, is completely independent from the Climate COP, despite increasing recognition that the two issues are entirely interlinked.

The message is starting to filter through though, particularly as the links between climate and health are becoming clearer and more urgent. On 10 November, with COP26 ongoing, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, addressed an open letter to NHS trusts in England, highlighting the crucial role that they had to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Importantly, Mr Javid wrote that this went beyond just reducing carbon emissions from the healthcare sector. Referring to the 25 million square metres of land occupied by acute care organisations alone, he noted how this could be used to reverse the devastating loss of grassland (97% was lost between 1932 and 1984), and the rapid disappearance of species which depend on these environments, such as birds and butterflies. The Health Secretary then referred to the NHS Forest as one of the “many great examples of work on biodiversity across the NHS,” which has “led to over 77,000 trees already being planted across 200 different NHS organisation estates.”

Above: An NHS Forest allotment cared for by staff and volunteers at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, boosts staff wellbeing and provides fresh, healthy food for the canteen

CSH works closely with the health system to encourage nature-based solutions for climate and health, through our Green Space for Health Programme, which includes the NHS Forest. We actively promote nature by increasing tree cover and green space access to boost the health and wellbeing of patients and the wider community. We have also designed health interventions which promote biodiversity protection (green walking, gardening, green prescribing, allotments), resulting in a holistic approach to human and planetary health.

We are calling for the prioritisation of a nature-based approach to health system change, which is focused on disease prevention and health promotion. We believe that:

  • The benefits to health of good quality, biodiverse green space should be recognised by all healthcare organisations. 
  • All staff and patients at healthcare sites should have access to green space for their wellbeing  
  • Green space should be used as a resource for prevention, health promotion, treatment and rehabilitation in both physical and mental health. 

For more information on the COP26 climate summit, see CSH’s daily recap blog summarising each day’s developments, health implications, and potential solutions.