Climate change is one of the greatest threats to human health worldwide, and the risks are on the rise. It threatens the essential ingredients of good health—clean air, safe drinking-water, nutritious food supply, and safe shelter—and has the potential to undermine decades of progress in health, globally, regionally, nationally and locally.
Climate change, in interaction with environmental change, has already created conditions more favorable for the emergence and spread of certain infectious diseases. Almost all recent pandemics originate from wildlife, and evidence suggests that increasing human pressure on the natural environment drives disease emergence. The current COVID-19 health crisis has taught us many lessons but is also giving an opportunity to rethink how we can work together to address more effectively a global crisis. When faced with public health threats of a global scale, such as COVID-19 or climate change, we are only as strong as our weakest health system.
The health sector has a double role to play. On the one side, it needs to adapt and become resilient to climate change. On the other side, it needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its operations, contributing to mitigation efforts. Delaying action on both adaptation and mitigation in the health and other sectors increases the human and economic costs associated with climate change and undermines progress on the sustainable development targets across the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
For us in UNDP and WHO, adaptation and mitigation to climate change means advancing more resilient, sustainable development outcomes that take into consideration ongoing and future climate-related impacts, including those related to health. It also means offering support to areas with weaker health infrastructure, as these will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.
UNDP activities in the ECA region focus on informing climate-smart policy and strategy development and supporting countries in building national adaptation plans and programmes of action that will protect vulnerable populations from the threats posed by a changing climate. WHO draws on its specialization and health sector constituency. It provides evidence-based policy advice and offers guidance and tools to increase countries’ capacity to reform and enhance national health systems, lending expertise particularly on the connection between climate change and health. Activities by the WHO Regional Office for Europe, through the European Centre for Environment and Health, support countries in building climate-resilient health systems, including health considerations in national adaptation planning, generating evidence on the health co-benefits from de-carbonization, providing guidance on heat health action planning and tracking national progress in protecting health from climate change. These activities aim at supporting countries in achieving their commitments taken by the 2017 Ostrava Declaration on Environment and Health, in particular those related to strengthening adaptive capacity and resilience to health risks related to climate change, mitigation of climate change and building the environmental sustainability of health systems.
Thus, our joint goal is to work with countries to achieve transformational development progress by scaling-up action on climate change. UNDP supports countries on eliminating barriers to this ambitious transition, in particular by formulating a systemic, integrated approach through governance and policy frameworks, inclusive leadership, transparency systems, blended climate finance and implementation of Nationally Determined Contribution objectives. WHO has proven evidence that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through carbon-sensitive transport, food and energy-use choices results in improved health, particularly through reduced air pollution. The Paris Agreement on climate change is therefore potentially the strongest health agreement of this century. WHO supports countries in assessing the health gains that would result from the implementation of the existing Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement, and the potential for larger gains from more ambitious climate action.
Jointly together, WHO and UNDP bring a diversity of expertise and solutions to address climate and health problems. In 2018, UNDP and WHO signed a Memorandum of Understanding and committed to collaborate on delivering on the 2030 Agenda. As outlined in this Memorandum, the two organizations aim to collaborate to address the social, economic and environmental determinants of health and to support multisectoral responses to health emergencies and to health challenges arising from climate change. Capitalizing on the framework established by the Memorandum, both organizations are uniquely positioned to assist countries in the ECA region in designing and implementing strategies and concrete action towards tackling the health effects of climate change. Both organizations put in place their programmatic responses to the COVID-19 emergency with short-, medium- and long-term vision for assessing the impact of the pandemic, enhanced public services, strengthened resilience and response capacities of health systems and green and sustainable recovery. The partnership between the two organizations ensures that a comprehensive approach to health in climate change includes multiple dimensions of health system resilience, livelihoods, ecosystem health, food security, water safety and sanitation. Given their close relations with different sets of stakeholders across government and civil society, the partnership between these two organizations can help facilitate collaboration between different actors.