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COP26: Why health and climate change go hand in hand

Written by Juliette Cosgrove

The COP26 conference is an urgent and important moment in global politics, with the lives of future generations dependent on decisions made over these next few days. Positive and meaningful action on climate change will reap huge health benefits for all. Climate change and health are intrinsically linked, with the UNDP’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, set out in 2015 listing ‘Climate action’ and ‘good health and well-being’ as separate goals, but really the two are closely intertwined, as is the goal to reduce inequalities.

One of the first celebrated agreements to emerge from this week’s summit has been the pledge from over 100 world leaders to end deforestation. This is a great example of the way in which global climate action can have far-reaching benefits on health. Whilst other countries are far more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, 36,000 deaths in the UK alone are attributed to air pollution every year.

Heat-related deaths in this country are rising at an extraordinary rate with experts predicting that they will triple to 7,000 a year by the 2050s and flooding is becoming an increasingly regular health and safety hazard to people in the UK, a cause of hypothermia, electrocution and gastrointestinal illnesses amongst others.

The expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) in London is a clear example of how climate action measures can have extraordinary health benefits. The original ULEZ in central London saw the number of cleaner vehicles increase from 39% in 2017 to 80% and roadside NO2 levels fell by 44%. The benefits of Cleaning up London’s air cannot be confined to climate or health since they are so closely intertwined.

All organisations have a part to play in reaching net-zero carbon emissions, including the NHS. This week it reflected on its ambition to reach net-zero carbon emissions as outlined in last year’s report, Delivering a Net Zero NHS. The consensus is clear, the NHS needs rapid transformation to keep up with new and mounting challenges and sustainability will be at the core of any change. Alongside having significant carbon benefits, sustainable transformation of NHS services can improve patient safety, cost and accessibility.

One example of the NHS making positive changes is the introduction of e-bikes in Oxford, which has halved the delivery time of cancer treatments, from 30 minutes (when delivered by van) to 15 minutes (when delivered via e-bike). This has also led to reductions in local air pollution, saving an estimated ten tonnes of carbon emissions per year and hence presenting a patient and carbon benefit.

As we await to hear more outcomes of COP26, reflecting on the future we are building and the SDGs of 2015 to see the roles we can play on an individual and organisational level is important. Of the 17 SDGs, there are three which feel particularly close to ZPB and many of our clients: reducing poverty; reducing inequalities and good health and wellbeing.

The Covid 19 pandemic has shone a light on the damning effects that poverty and inequalities have on health and wellbeing in the UK. Research recently revealed that minority ethnic groups reported 19% more problems during the pandemic whilst those in manual and routine jobs versus managers and professionals faced 17% more healthcare disruption.

Earlier on in the year, our work with Our Healthier south east London sought to tackle some of these healthcare inequalities and successfully managed to shift the vaccine hesitancy profile in the area, so that ethnicity was no longer a defining factor. Our work with the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control looks at how implementing evidenced-based tobacco control policies tackles the threat tobacco poses to our health and environment internationally, and working with The Union also keeps these goals of reducing poverty and inequalities and promoting good health and wellbeing at the forefront by reducing suffering due to tuberculosis and lung disease worldwide.