The Paris Agreement marks the beginning of a new era in the global response to climate change.
It is widely recognized that this Agreement is critical to safeguarding the planet.
What is less well known is that this is probably the most important health agreement of the century.
The Paris Agreement, adopted on 12 December 2015, marks the beginning of a new era in the global response to climate change. The world now has set out initial contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and a mechanism for ratcheting up these reductions; and national governments are currently in the ratification process. It is widely recognized that this Agreement is critical to safeguarding the planet. What is less well known is that this is probably the most important health agreement of the century.
This is both because it will help protect the environmental conditions that are essential to health, such as safe and adequate food and freshwater, safety from disasters and freedom from infectious disease – but also because of the opportunities to promote health while cutting carbon emissions. As stated in the Agreement’s preamble, “the right to health” must be central to the actions taken.
The Agreement not only sets the ambitious objective to curb greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, it also commits countries to strengthen adaptation. This includes implementing plans that should protect human health from the worst impacts of climate change, such as heat waves, floods and droughts, and the ongoing degradation of water and food security. It commits countries to finance clean and resilient futures in the most vulnerable countries. Through monitoring and revision of national commitments every five years, the world will begin to see improvements not only in the environment, but also in health, including reductions in more than seven million deaths worldwide that are attributed to air pollution every year.
While the Agreement was necessary, it is not sufficient. Put simply, it will not implement itself. At the World Health Organization, we consider it necessary to mobilize the strength of the health community to support the implementation of the Paris Agreement, for a healthier and more sustainable society. In July 2016 more than 300 government ministers, health practitioners and experts in climate change and sustainable development gathered in Paris for the Second WHO Global Conference on health and Climate. To ensure the continuity between COP 21 and its future implementation, the Conference was hosted by the Government of France (Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Environment, and Health), together with WHO, and in collaboration with the Moroccan Government, the incoming COP 22 Presidency (7-18 November 2016).
The conference significantly advanced the global effort on health and climate change. The leadership of the President of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP 21 (Environment Minister Ségolène Royal of France) and of the incoming COP 22 Presidency (Morocco, represented by Environment Minister Hakima El Haite) as conference Chairs was critical to further the integration of health into the UNFCCC process. Also critical to the meeting was the participation of Ministers of Health and Environment from around the world, and the Heads of UNFCCC, WMO and the UN Office for Diaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). Perhaps most importantly, the conference also included representatives of civil society, programme managers and technical experts who will be at the forefront of translating the high-level objectives of the Paris Agreement into actions that will protect and promote health.
Recognizing the transition of the Paris Agreement from a negotiation to an implementation phase, the conference did not result in a political declaration, but in a comprehensive action plan for the global health community. This plan is now being disseminated as a living document that WHO and the Government of France will deliver to COP 22 on behalf of the conference participants. It will also be used to inform the discussions with Member States at the 70th World Health Assembly guide the work of the global health community as a whole.
Immediate next steps include:
– Follow up on the strong interest of the Moroccan Government on health within their COP Presidency. WHO will work with the Moroccan Government to organize a Ministerial level event on environment and health at COP 22, and to ensure a prominent role for health at the COP itself.
– Discuss with interested parties the acceleration of mainstreaming of climate change considerations into health programming (i.e. increasing the climate resilience of health systems), and promoting health co-benefits of climate change mitigation policies (with a particular focus on air pollution, including Short-Lived Climate Pollutants).
Addressing climate change and health is a marathon, not a sprint – and we are still in the early stages. Nonetheless, the Second WHO Global Conference on Health and Climate constituted an important step and has achieved its primary aim of mobilizing a strong health community, ready to implement the Paris Agreement.