The Paris Agreement on climate change will be at the heart of progress in public health in every country around the world, providing the blueprint for a healthy and safe future. The deal lays the groundwork for global action to limit warming well below 2°C, and needs to catalyse a transition to a decarbonised economy while protecting human well-being.
The agreement has been made possible by a fast-growing global momentum from all parts of society. The global health sector made its voice heard at COP21, with declarations representing over 1700 health organizations, over 8000 hospitals and health facilities, and 13 million health professionals calling for urgent action to protect our climate and our health.
However, the agreement is only as good as the actions we now take. Much work needs to be done by the governments of all countries, including New Zealand. The health impacts of climate change are already being seen around the world with hundreds of thousands already dying as a result of climate change each year and millions more affected by the health burden of our carbon-intensive economies. Man-made air pollution alone claims one in eight lives worldwide and more than a thousand deaths per year in New Zealand.
Health professionals are calling for governments to build on their progress in Paris. “As health professionals, we will not rest until governments have met their obligation to keep our climate safe and liveable. We have a responsibility to our patients and communities to protect health from climate impacts which cannot be avoided, and to ensure that our governments further scale up action as rapidly as possible,” Dr Alex Macmillan, co-convenor of OraTaiao said.
Now that negotiators have returned home, health leaders will ensure that governments are held accountable to the commitments made in Paris. But this will mean putting in place real policies that break with business as usual, not just buying our way out of continued emissions at the expense of households. Transforming our health, transport, food, energy and housing sectors to address climate change offers enormous opportunities to reduce deaths and illness from obesity, heart disease, cancer and lung diseases.
An unprecedented coalition of health leaders around New Zealand responded to the agreement with hope and determination to press for a healthy climate response from the Government:
Grant Brookes, President of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation
“Nurses are concerned that health considerations are not featuring in New Zealand’s climate change policy – especially given their scale and severity. Mental health impacts, in particular, should not be overlooked. Those already disadvantaged in terms of health access and outcomes, such as Māori and Pacific peoples, will be particularly vulnerable.”
“But the good news is that healthy people, healthy planet go together. Making it easier to walk, cycle and take public transport will improve public health, and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well. Fresh, locally grown food is more nutritious, and less fuel is burnt producing it and getting it to the shop. Dry, well-insulated homes reduce hospital admissions as well as energy use. Government policies to support and scale up these practical, positive steps should be implemented urgently.”
Dr George Laking, Chair of the Climate Change & Health Working Party, Royal Australasian College of Physicians
“Climate change already impacts communities around the world by way of diseases, heat and extreme weather. It is rendering people homeless, leading to food shortages and increased levels of malnutrition. We know that unchecked climate change will increase the frequency and severity of droughts, floods, and coastal storms leading to devastating consequences for all our Pacific neighbours. This is an opportunity for the medical community to work together, keeping the pressure on decision makers, demanding they take real action to protect the health of all citizens. It is an opportunity for us to lead by example. We call on the New Zealand government to work with urgency to make the Paris Agreement a number one priority.”
Professor Chris Bullen, Chair of the New Zealand Policy & Advocacy Committee, Royal Australasian College of Physicians
“This is the first time, since the UN formed, that member states have made such a unified, bold commitment to action. It sends a strong message to the public that governments all over the world now take climate change seriously.”
Dr Caroline McElnay, President of the New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine
“Addressing climate change in New Zealand will provide direct health benefits for New Zealanders with reduction in use of fossil fuel, less air pollution and increasing use of active transport such as walking and cycling. What's good for the planet is also good for us – it's a win-win situation.”
Karen Guilliland, CEO of the New Zealand College of Midwives
“Midwives recognise the serious negative health consequences of our changing climate for women, babies and their families and are hopeful that the Paris Agreement signifies a new start to meaningful global collaboration and positive change. Conception, the health of pregnant women and mothers, and the lives of their babies, depend on the health of our planet – we must work together to chart a new course towards health, sustainability, clean energy, and safe water and food systems.”
Carmen Chan, Clinical Representative for the New Zealand Medical Students Association
“As training healthcare professionals, we stand in a position where we will see the health needs of communities increasingly affected by climate change. Climate variation is central to health outcomes both now and into the future. Developing sustainable health policies and strengthening climate ambition is pivotal to protecting vulnerable populations and securing intergenerational equity. The adoption of the Paris Agreement is an important step forward, and a strong commitment by governing bodies is now required to build effective solutions towards climate mitigation and ensuring healthy livelihoods.”
About Climate Change and Health:
Information about climate change and health in New Zealand is available in the following open access paper from the 2014 NZ Medical Journal:
Health and equity impacts of climate change in Aotearoa-New Zealand, and health gains from climate action
A new report summarising why COP21 is important to health from the Global Climate and Health Alliance:
Health and climate at COP21 and beyond