Health at the Heart of Climate Action: WHO’s Message to COP28 Negotiators
COP28, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), will take place from November 30 to December 12, 2023, at the Expo City complex in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Negotiators at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) must accelerate the end of fossil fuels, eliminate trillions in fossil fuel subsidies, and swiftly transition to clean, renewable energy to reap the health benefits of climate action, senior World Health Organization (WHO) officials urged at a press briefing on Tuesday.

Despite the absence of explicit mention of fossil fuels in the draft “Health Declaration” to be signed by UN member states at the climate conference, which begins on Thursday, negotiators working on the outcome document must recognise that “we need to halt emissions and accelerate the transition to clean, renewable energy for the sake of health,” stated Dr. Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department of Climate, Environment, and Health.

“The more we postpone action on reducing emissions and accelerating this transition to clean, renewable sources of energy, the more we rely on fossil fuels, the more our health will be paying the price that is very high,” Neira said. 

‘Healthwashing’ or real progress? 

While this year’s COP is poised to host the first-ever ministerial level “Health Day”, with a strong commitment from the COP Presidency and UAE hosts to highlight the issue, civil society groups have expressed concerns that these moves could amount to a “greenwash” of a conference hosted by a petrostate, where oil and gas lobbyists will have a prominent presence.

Meanwhile, other sources have informed Health Policy Watch that the decision to set aside ‘fossil fuels’ language in the health declaration was made deliberately to ensure that the issue is thoroughly addressed in the core negotiations by member states rather than being relegated to a single thematic area, regardless of health’s importance.

Exclusive: COP28 Climate and Health Draft Declaration Ignores Fossil Fuels as Driver of Health Harms 

Addressing the briefing, WHO officials were adamant that they are carrying an unequivocal message on the issue to COP negotiators. 

“What we are telling the negotiators is the more you postpone action, the more you are taking responsibility for not addressing the health consequences,” said Neira.

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, who leads the climate change and health unit at WHO, added that achieving the 2015 Paris Agreement’s climate goals sooner rather than later would also save approximately 1 million lives annually by reducing air pollution-related mortality. Conversely, delaying action will result in more avoidable deaths from warming and an increase in air pollution-related deaths.

“We believe that the health argument supports the case for rapid action because there is a significant difference between waiting until 2029 to attempt a rapid reduction in admissions and waiting until 2049 to do the same,” Campbell-Lendrum explained.

“For one thing, you’ve left a lot of carbon in the atmosphere by not starting earlier, accumulating much more carbon in the process. Additionally, you’ve missed the opportunity to save a lot of lives if you leave it until the last minute to intervene. The economics of this are clear,” he stated.

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, head of the WHO’s Climate and Health team

“The health argument is also clear on this – the sooner we act, and the more ambitiously we act, the more affordable it is to address the climate crisis but also to save more lives,” Campbell-Lendrum said.

Campbell-Lendrum acknowledged that the financial cost of climate policies is often raised as the main counterargument to action. “it costs money,” he said.

However, he countered that this argument is not valid given the trillions currently allocated to fossil fuel subsidies. Taxpayers worldwide shouldered an additional cost of approximately $600 per household last year to subsidize fossil fuel consumption, Campbell-Lendrum said.

When factoring in the health detriments caused by fossil fuel consumption, the IMF estimates that the true subsidy is closer to $3,500 per household globally.

“The money is there. We’re just not spending it in the right place,” he said. “Part of the message we’re taking to COP is we need to invest in a healthier, greener future for everybody.”

What to expect at COP28

Along with a full-fledged Health Day on December 3, attended by some 65 ministers of health, dozens of health-related events are planned to unfold throughout the two weeks of the climate conference.

At the WHO’s COP28 Pavilion, some 40 thematic events are planned on topics such as climate change and health, while other health-related climate events will be staged in the pavilions of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the SDGs, the World Bank, and even the pavilion of the Cryosphere.

An innovative model health clinic powered by renewable energy will also be on display at the COP, showcasing the potential for health facilities to operate sustainably and contribute to climate change mitigation.

“We will be demonstrating that even healthcare facilities that are currently not contributing to a carbon footprint can access clean energy without exacerbating climate change,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department of Climate, Environment, and Health.

Approximately one billion people worldwide are served by health facilities that lack access to adequate and reliable electricity for essential health services, including emergency care, disease control, and childbirth according to a WHO report published earlier this year.. Over 430 million people are served by primary care facilities that have no electricity at all.

On the other end of the spectrum, healthcare services in middle- and high-income countries are among the largest energy consumers of any economic sector, accounting for about 5% of global carbon emissions.

WHO’s alliance on transformative action on climate and health (ATACH)

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Climate, Environment and Health, lays out plans for health events at COP28.

WHO also has established a new platform, called the Alliance on Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATACH). Through ATACH, member states can make voluntary declarations on plans to make health facilities more climate-resilient and sustainable, and they can also access technical support, quality assurance, and financing for decarbonizing health systems.

To date, 78 countries have joined the Alliance, with 71 committing to become “sustainable, low-carbon” health systems and 29 pledging to reach net zero in the health sector by 2030, 2040, or 2050.

“We, as the health sector, can reduce our own carbon footprint by decarbonizing our interventions that at the moment contribute to 5% of the global emissions,” Neira said.

Image Credits: Dennis Sylvester Hurd.

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