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Climate and health: Building consensus on unified approach for post-COP28 action

It is often said that environment and health are two sides of the same coin. The interdependence between environment and health cannot be ignored anymore as scientific evidence keeps highlighting that a poorly managed environment is a recipe for an increased disease burden across the globe.

COP28 Health Day
Participants at the COP28 Health Day forum

For instance, it is a no brainer that poor sanitation is a leading cause of water borne-related diseases, just as the case is with increased antimicrobial resistance and cancers resulting from poor chemical and other hazardous waste management.

In recognition of the interplay between health and the environment, environmental and health experts have been working collaboratively to promote the one health concept – an integrated and unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimise the health of people, animals and ecosystems.

One health recognises that the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and interdependent.

While health, food, water, energy and environment are all wider topics with sector-specific concerns, the collaboration across sectors and disciplines contributes to protect health, address health challenges such as the emergence of infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance, and food safety and promote the health and integrity of ecosystems.

By linking humans, animals and the environment, One Health can help to address the full spectrum of disease control; from prevention to detection, preparedness, response and management – and contribute to global health security.

The approach can be applied at the community, subnational, national, regional and global levels, and relies on shared and effective governance, communication, collaboration and coordination. Having the One Health approach in place makes it easier for people to better understand the co-benefits, risks, trade-offs and opportunities to advance equitable and holistic solutions.

As a consequence of poor environmental management, climate change has emerged as a major threat to global health, with the most vulnerable populations facing the greatest impact. Unfortunately, those who contribute least to the problem often suffer the most severe consequences.

It is estimated that around 824 million people globally are malnourished, of which 58.7 million children are in Africa. Additionally, millions in Africa lack basic water and sanitation, leading to significant child mortality from diarrhoea. It is further estimated that 58% of infectious diseases globally have been intensified by changes in climate. This has ripple effects on public health, economy, environment, and education. The situation is predicted to   worsen with rising global temperatures, threatening progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Universal Health Coverage.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment report warns that climate change affects, both physical and mental health, and can exacerbate humanitarian crises, and recognises the need for action.

Paragraph C.2 of the aforesaid report, states: “Deep, rapid and sustained mitigation and accelerated implementation of adaptation actions in this decade would reduce projected losses and damages for humans and ecosystems, and deliver many co-benefits, especially for air quality and health.”

Thus, several efforts are underway to integrate health into the formal UNFCCC discourse and to gain political traction on the nexus of climate change and health. In recognition of the importance of health and for COP28 to recognise the already severe and growing impacts of climate change on human health, the COP28 Presidency, working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other partners organised the first ever health day in the history of COPs on day 4 of COP28 on Sunday, December 3, 2023.

The day brought together Ministers of Health and senior health delegates from over 100 countries. The Ministerial mobilised support for the COP28 Climate and Health Agenda and the “COP28 Declaration on Climate and Health” that was unveiled on December 2 at the World Climate Action Summit and endorsed by over 120 countries and over $1 billion of climate health financing was galvanised by partners.

Speaking on the day, COP28 Director-General Ambassador, Al Suwaidi, noted: “While we build the energy system of tomorrow, we cannot ignore the needs of people today. We must rapidly protect and promote their health and well-being while improving the climate-resilience of healthcare systems and reduce climate-health risks.”

“Protecting Lives and Livelihoods” is one of four central pillars in the COP28 Presidency’s Action Agenda which focuses on people, nature, lives and livelihoods.

AMREF Health Africa, in collaboration with Africa CDC, Wellcome Trust, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pan African Justice Alliance for Climate Change (PACJA) and others, convened several stakeholder events to galvanise support for the health and climate change nexus.

The events were aimed at building consensus among Ministers of health in Africa on the key submissions and the common position to be presented during various COP sessions, as well as engage with the Africa Group of Negotiators and political leaders to carry forward key submissions in the different negotiation workstreams at COP28.

At the African health ministerial roundtable, AMREF Health Africa, Group Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dr Githinji Gitahi, called for active involvement of health Ministers in the climate change discourse.

“It’s unbelievable that we are here today. We thank the COP28 Presidency for dedicating a health day for Climate Health – the first ever in the history of COPs. We also appreciate the tireless efforts of the WHO, the health ministers and other key global health partners, in making the health day a reality,” said Dr. Githinji.

And UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Simon Stiell, emphasised the importance of recognising the interplay between climate change and health.

“Health is the human face of climate change,” he said. “The air we breathe should be free of harmful pollution. Our communities should be safe from the devastating effects of floods, droughts and heat waves. Transitioning away from fossil fuels can help us get there.”

By Friday Phiri

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