Imperial College London

Align health and climate goals to motivate action, say experts at UN summit

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Smoke from a factory chimney belches out thick white smoke over a dark, foggy city-scape

Bringing home the implications of health issues like air pollution can raise passion for tackling climate change, say academics at Imperial's COP25.

“Climate change can feel like a distant threat that will happen in the future to someone else, so we need to make it personal,” says NYU School of Medicine’s Professor George Thurston, who first presented on this topic at the fifth COP conference, 20 years ago. 

It is well documented in academic literature that taking action on climate change can have huge benefits for public health – and that considering these benefits can accelerate action on climate change. However, the under-representation of health organisations at the climate summit suggests their arguments are missing from vital conversations and decisions about our future on the planet. 

Over 26,000 delegates from across the world convened at the 25th UN Climate Summit (COP25) in Madrid. Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment, in partnership with the UN’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), hosted an official side event about integrating public health issues with action on climate change.  

“By talking about things that are directly relevant to people’s lives today, like air pollution, health and diet, we can better motivate action on climate change – at both individual and policy level”, Professor Thurston told a rapt audience at the event.

Together with the CCAC, the Grantham Institute invited attendees to hear how countries can integrate action on climate change with solutions to public health challenges, in order to identify approaches that can simultaneously boost climate ambition and achieve public health goals. 

Speakers came came from organisations including the Stockholm Environment Institute, the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change of Mexico, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Côte d’Ivoire and the World Resources Institute.  

At the end of the event, an audience member highlighted that, despite the implications of climate change on health and the multiple health benefits of addressing climate change, there is still little representation of the health sector at high level climate meetings. Some thought that more must be done to make the public and policymakers aware of the local and immediate health benefits of climate action, and to integrate public health and climate policy. 

Learning from the past 

Photo depicts the back of a bus driving through a London smog in 1952
A London smog in 1953 (Credit: RV1864 / Flickr)

There have been been episodes with high air pollution in the past. Such as in the 1900s, when London fogs were very common, but people did not relate them to air pollution. “The first time scientists monitored the pollution levels in London was in 1952. They realised that, as the smoke levels jumped, the mortality levels in the city jumped – and vice versa. It was a stark revelation,” explained Professor Thurston.  

“Similarly, in the 1960s there was serious pollution in New York and in 1970 there were huge protests about it, marking the first Earth Day. This led to the Clean Air Act, which was a huge success. From 1980 to 2018, the pollution levels in the United States went down by 70%, and dire warnings about the negative impact on the economy didn’t come true as GDP [a measure of economic activity] went up by 175%."  

The power of an integrated approach 

The panel highlighted that integrating health and climate policy is an effective way to cement climate action. This is often referred to as the 'co-benefits' approach, meaning that one policy has a positive impact on more than one problem. For example, in 2019, Mexico implemented a coordinated strategy to tackle air pollution and climate change. 

“Mexico has taken concrete steps to enhance our national climate policies by considering and including air pollutants – Short-Lived Climate Pollutants [SLCP],” explained Amparo Martínez Arroyo, General Director of the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change of Mexico. “Lots of climate and air quality pollutants come from the same combustion source, so an integrated approach is possible in lots of sectors – and often comes with multiple benefits.”  

Ange-Benjamin Brida, National Coordinator CCAC in Côte d’Ivoire, led the development of the country's national action plan for reducing Short-Lived Climate Pollutants.“In developing countries it is really difficult to get policymakers to take concrete actions to reduce emissions,” he said. “Bringing in the co-benefits aspect speaks to policymakers at a local level – and at a regional level. This integrated approach is the main driver of action.”  

Animation: How can taking action on climate change make all our lives better?

The event formed part of a programme of activities led by Imperial at the UN climate summit. These included a discussion about the commercial opportunities of greenhouse gas removal technology; and an event about how nature-based solutions like blue carbon ecosystems can help tackle climate change and boost coastal resilience. Find out more about the Imperial delegation here

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Top image credit: Damian Bakarcic / Flickr CC-BY-2.0)

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Miss Lottie Butler

Miss Lottie Butler
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Health-policy, Sustainability, Global-challenges-Natural-world, Comms-strategy-Real-world-benefits, Global-health, Global-challenges-Health-and-wellbeing, Environment, Climate-change
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