Health Day at upcoming UN climate conference — a first in COP history

Direct damage costs to health is estimated to be between $2-4 billion per year by 2030

By Taran Deol
Published: Friday 05 May 2023
COP28 President-Designate Sultan Al Jaber from UAE speaking at the opening session of the 14th Petersberg Climate Dialogue. Photo: @GermanyDiplo /

Finally heeding to the many versions of the ‘climate change crisis is a public health crisis’ argument made by domain experts, the upcoming 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will assess health issues in great detail. 

This reverses a historical trend of health being absent from COP discussions, despite roughly 189 million people in developing countries being affected by extreme weather events annually since 1991.

Sultan Al Jaber, the president of COP28 that will take place in Dubai this November, said on Tuesday: “We will be the first COP to dedicate a day to health and the first to host a health and climate ministerial. And we need to broaden our definition of adaptation to enable global climate resilience, transform food systems and enhance forestry land use and water management.”

He was speaking at the first Forecasting Healthy Futures (FHF) Summit, a consortium of health and tech organisations working towards minimising the impacts of climate change on global disease elimination efforts. 

Jaber called on delegates to develop a “clear, achievable roadmap to COP28 that brings together a diverse range of stakeholders from the health sector to ensure that public health is elevated in the climate agenda, and is leveraged as a moment to make progress on the climate resilience of healthcare systems”.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted fissures in the health systems across the world, which will only widen as the climate change crisis worsens. A warming world will add to the existing high disease burden. This is because increased disasters like heatwaves, floods and droughts will lead to more illnesses while an increase in temperature will allow for vector-borne diseases to survive at higher latitudes and thereby impact a greater population. 

Hailing the decision to have a Health Day at COP28, the Rockefeller Foundation called “for the active participation from the health ministries and civil society organisations of low- and middle-income countries, which have contributed the least to climate change, but need the most investment to prepare, respond and adapt to it.” 

The foundation underscored how this is a prime opportunity to catalyse an equitable acceleration of climate action and will help ensure “we can build a future where people can not only survive but thrive”.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus has, on many occasions, highlighted the dangerous climate and health nexus which has not been receiving the attention it deserves. “Extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, land degradation and food and water scarcity have a profound impact on the health of millions of people. The effects of global warming will only accelerate unless we take action now to tackle the root cause of climate change,” he said in a video address in March this year. 

Pushing for an urgent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, Ghebreyesus added, “We must embrace strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change, such as using innovative technologies, investing in climate resilient health systems, and having a well-trained and decentrally paid health workforce.” 

However, even the WHO’s participation in COP discussions was only a recent addition. Realising Health Day has been an uphill task but this is only a small victory. Health received some attention at COP27 held in Egypt last year when conference resolutions referred to the need for governments’ climate action to “respect, promote, and consider their respective obligations on human rights, including the right to [the] highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” according to an opinion piece in The BMJ noted.

Direct damage costs to health is estimated to be between $2-4 billion per year by 2030, according to WHO. And from then to 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year. 

Such statistics only make the case stronger for bringing health to the centrestage of talks to mitigate climate change. Such efforts, mostly informal and not legally binding, have been made in the past. 

In 2021, the WHO joined hands with the United Kingdom COP26 presidency and established the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health, which had 60 countries as signatories. It outlined four key issues to address; financing the health commitments on climate resilient and sustainable low carbon health systems, climate resilient health systems, low carbon sustainable health systems and supply chains. 

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