Public health has an important role in securing a sustainable future, and the potential co-benefits and cost-savings between sustainability and health are well documented. Active transport interventions, for example, can increase physical activity levels and mental wellness, while also reducing air pollution, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. Helping food producers and consumers to transition towards more sustainable diets can reduce risks of cardiovascular disease and unhealthy weight, while lessening land and water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are many barriers to meeting the twin goals of universal health coverage and the transition to a sustainable society, including lack of political will to invest in prevention, and inequalities in power, wealth, and access.
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastatingly exposed the weaknesses and inequalities in our health and humanitarian systems in the face of global crises. Although some countries managed a consistent public health response, and scientific cooperation and mobilisation led to the rapid development of life-saving vaccines, public health systems in many countries were under-prepared, high underlying burdens of non-communicable disease made populations vulnerable to severe illness, and vast inequalities existed, both within and between countries, in exposure to the disease and in access to prevention and treatment. The geographical ranges of infectious diseases, such as chikungunya, lime disease, and malaria, will increase as the climate warms, and greater encroachment of human settlements into wild areas could increase the risk of novel zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19. The world needs equitable investment in research, surveillance, and preventive health to build global resilience to these emerging risks.
The destabilising effects of climate change are falling most heavily on the most vulnerable. Many lower-income countries are among the most vulnerable to sea-level rise, natural hazards, and food and water insecurity, and their lack of resources to mitigate against these impacts could lead to forced migrations. It is imperative that higher-income countries follow commitments, reaffirmed at COP26, to fairly fund mitigation and adaptation activities in lower-income countries—including investment in health systems resilience.
Our window to limit global warming to the 1·5°C ambition agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement, and therefore reduce the impacts of climate change on societies and health, is rapidly closing. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, some political leaders have called for intensification of fossil fuel extraction. Given the, now clear, evidence for the destabilising potential of climate change for health and society, such suggestions should be recognised as self-defeating. Instead of regressing, these global crises should be the catalyst for rapid transitions to sustainable societies, that focus on achieving good health and wellbeing for all people and the planet.
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd.
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