Imperial College London

Academics call for health leaders to be involved in decision making at COP


Delegates on stage during COP27 Image Credit: UNFCCC

Two Imperial academics are calling for health leaders to attend future COPs and ensure that health becomes a core currency of future negotiations.

Professor Mala Rao, Director of the Ethnicity and Health Unit in the School of Public Health, and Dr Emma Lawrance, Lead Policy Fellow for Mental Health in the Institute of Global Health Innovation have made the call in a commentary piece published in the British Medical Journal, entitled: “COP28 must be a health COP”.

The authors highlight that economic growth, rather than population health and wellbeing, remains the key goal of most countries, even in the face of the climate emergency. This economic focus is reflected at the United Nations’ Conference of Parties (COP) by a historical absence of discussions on the health impacts of climate change.

They set out that the true metric of policies emerging from COPs should be the safeguarding of the health and wellbeing of people across the world. As it stands leaders are failing to meet this and as a result the cost to lives and livelihoods continues to grow because of climate breakdown.

Professor Rao and Dr Lawrance highlight that tipping points for climate breakdown have already been surpassed and the “resulting human mental and physical health toll escalates at alarming speed especially in the most climate vulnerable regions.”

Dr Emma Lawrance stated: “People around the world are experiencing compounding risks to their lives, livelihoods and cultures as a result of the changing climate. People already vulnerable to mental illness are among those particularly affected. The climate emergency is destabilising the conditions that support good health, increasing poor physical and mental health, all while disrupting access to healthcare."

“However, as humans, we are social, adaptable, and resilient; climate distress arises in part from our love for each other and the more-than-human world. There is an enormous opportunity at the heart of acting on the climate crisis to invest in the conditions required for good health and wellbeing, including for example strong communities and clean air. Ultimately, the climate crisis is about human behaviours and human health; health and wellbeing must be the metric by which progress is measured, and siloed policy decisions on climate and health done away with.”

Professor Mala Rao agrees. She added: “At this perilous time when global leaders warn that we are on a highway to climate hell, can there be anything more important to fight for than the health and wellbeing of people in the present and future generations. Health professionals are highly trusted and influential members of society and this paper urges them to take lead roles in climate advocacy and action, especially because what’s good for the climate is also good for public health”.  

Human health has begun to receive greater attention as part of recent COP deliberations. Resolutions from COP27 included reference to the need for climate action to “respect, promote and consider their obligation on humans rights, including the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

The authors are calling on medical professionals to inform themselves and the public about the health benefits of climate action as well as being involved in the spaces where climate policies are developed.

Lawrance, E.L. and Rao, M. (2023) Why COP28 must be a health cop, The BMJ. British Medical Journal Publishing Group. Available at: (Accessed: March 13, 2023).


Jack Stewart

Jack Stewart
School of Public Health

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