The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.

IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, 2022

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability was published on 28 February 2022. The report takes a stronger line than ever before on the gravity of the situation facing the world.

A global report, the take-home messages can seem overwhelming, and it is difficult to assess their applicability to a local situation. However, there are a number of key points relevant to the work of the NHS Forest, and anybody involved in the improvement and advocacy of green space for health. The IPCC report recognises the interconnection between the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis; the place of human health and wellbeing in reducing climate risks; and the importance of equity and justice. Recognition of all these issues is something that the NHS Forest welcomes.

Parts of the report focus on the impacts of climate change on public health and wellbeing. The report states with “very high confidence” that climate change has adversely affected the physical and mental health of people worldwide. Tree planting and greening urban areas can mitigate the health impacts of climate change, using natural solutions to alleviate the urban heat island effect and reduce the impact of extreme heat. It can also increase biodiversity and provide numerous health and wellbeing benefits for the urban population through provision of green spaces.

However, the IPCC report warns of the risk of ‘green gentrification’, where nature-based solutions are prioritised in affluent urban areas at the expense of providing equitable access for more deprived urban populations. It advises planning with equity consequences in mind. In the UK, the Nature for Everyone campaign, supported by the NHS Forest, is calling on the government to ensure that nature is accessible to all.  

The report recommends strengthening the climate resilience of health systems to protect and promote human health and wellbeing.

[Health and wellbeing would benefit from] integrated adaptation approaches that mainstream health into food, livelihoods, social protection, infrastructure, water and sanitation policies requiring collaboration and coordination at all scales of governance.

IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, 2022

Once again emphasising equity, the IPCC notes that the greatest gains in wellbeing can be achieved by prioritising climate risk reduction initiatives and finance in low-income and marginalised communities.

Continued urbanisation also offers opportunities to develop cities in climate-resilient ways with benefits for biodiversity and the wider urban ecosystem. Biophilic design principles work with nature, taking inspiration from the natural world. New-build hospitals and healthcare centres should have climate resilience as a focal point for their design, and provision of accessible green spaces should be incorporated at the concept stage to ensure that any new sites have nature at their heart. On the NHS Forest website, we suggest numerous ways to green your site and improve the biodiversity, climate resilience and wellbeing impact of existing hospital spaces.

It is important to note the IPCC position on creating new forests as a climate mitigation practice. The report states that afforestation done poorly, or in a rush, can do more harm than good when it comes to community wellbeing, protecting biodiversity and indeed mitigation of carbon emissions. Strategies that are meant to be risk-mitigating can end up generating risks – so it is important to understand the consequences of any action taken, and ensure that factors such as biodiversity and plant disease risk are accounted for.

This echoes the mantra that when it comes to tree planting, ‘the right tree, in the right place, at the right time and for the right reason’ is the gold standard guiding principle. It is not worth being overly focused on simply numbers, if these trees are planted in poorly planned locations, where they are not valued by local stakeholders, or are at risk of death and disease from unsuitable ecological conditions or improper management. Read more about tree planting principles and how the NHS Forest can help develop bespoke tree planting plans with your NHS site.

However, properly planted trees remain an important component of mitigating some of the primary impacts of climate change facing the UK, particularly, flooding. Since the 1970s, 44% of all ‘disaster events’ on Earth have been flood-related; mitigating the impacts of the increased rainfall the UK expects to receive as the climate changes is of prime importance. Properly done, afforestation and reforestation of British upland areas provides a key line of defence against the valley flooding that devastates communities with increasing frequency every year. Tree roots stabilise slopes and take up water, slowing the rate of runoff and reducing the risks from flooding-related landslips as well as reducing the volume of water collecting in valleys and swelling rivers.

Underlying all recommendations in the IPCC report is the emphasis on not rushing solutions, involving local communities in decision-making, and ensuring that nature-based mitigation does not adversely impact biodiversity. Whilst tree planting and other nature-based activities can be tools in the fight against climate change, there is no alternative to drastic emissions reductions, and decarbonisation must remain the strongest priority.

Nature and healthcare

The NHS Forest encourages healthcare sites to develop their green spaces, and use nature in healthcare, because the evidence is clear that more nature-connected societies are not only healthier and happier, but also more environmentally aware, and more likely to care for the world around them. In the light of the latest IPCC report, it is clear that we need nature more than ever – for our own health, the health of our communities, and the health of the entire planet.

Further reading:

A number of good summaries of the whole report have been published so far, for example: Carbon Brief; BBC; The Guardian.

Banner photo by USGS on Unsplash

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