New Climate and Health Resolution Wins Strong Support from WHO Member States
WHO member states applaud following late-night approval of WHA resolution on Climate Change and Health

WHO member states approved the first resolution on climate and health to come before the World Health Assembly in 16 years – even as 50°C temperatures in Delhi, flooding in southern Brazil and devastating Caribbean storms are driving home the message to more and more countries that climate change is real.

In several hours of late-night debate, states large and small, landlocked and ocean-bound, described in painful detail, their efforts to cope with growing trends of climate-triggered storms and drought, sea level rise, and food insecurity – all leading to more deaths and disability from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), health emergencies, vector-borne diseases as well as mental health impacts. 

Developing countries along with rich nations also detailed new plans to promote greener health systems and climate-smart food production, ban single-use plastics, and better manage urban waste and other forms of environmental contamination – noting their deep inter-relationship with climate action. 

Shift from ‘adaptation’ to low-carbon health systems and intersectoral action

Traffic jam in Dhaka (Bangladesh) – Fossil fuel burning, including for transport, exacerbates climate change as well as air pollution that kills millions every year.

Whereas the last resolution adopted by the WHA in 2008 focused mostly on health sector “adaptation” to climate change, the new resolution carves out a much broader and more proactive roll for member states and their health sectors in efforts to shape future trends as well as respond to the inevitable.  Among the measures, it urges member states to commit to:

  • “Decarbonization” and “environmentally sustainable health systems, facilities and supply chains;” including consumption, procurement, transport, and disposal of water, energy, food and waste, as well as medical supplies, equipment, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, “with a view to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” without compromising health care provision and quality;
  • Multisectoral cooperation between national health ministries and other national authorities on environment, the economy, health, nutrition and sustainable development, “for a coherent and holistic approach to building resilience and addressing the root causes of climate change;”
  • Resource mobilization, including funding from multilateral development banks, climate funds, health funds and “innovative sources”;
  • Awareness among the public and health sector on the interdependence between climate change and health, “engagement in the development of climate and health policies, fostering recognition of health co-benefits and sustainable behaviour.”

“The very survival of our species will depend on this,” said Colombia’s delegate during a late evening debate over the draft resolution, to which over three dozen countries signed on as co-sponsors. He deplored the dearth of climate finance for developing nations which have contributed the least to the climate problem.

Colombia: ”The very survival of our species depends on this.”

“Sadly, climate ambition is still not supported with adequate and sufficient finance to respond to the huge needs of this crisis. Every year, finance gutters growing to the tune of billions of dollars, we’re not seeing a clear path to a tangible solution,” he said. 

Broad mandate – but still silent on core issues

The words “fossil fuels” or even “clean energy” don’t appear in the text – something civil society groups such as the World Heart Federation and some member states, including The Netherlands,  which co-sponsored the resolution along with Peru, lamented. 

Even so, the Dutch delegate expressed hope that WHO’s example of achieving net zero in its own operations – a feature of WHO’s new four-year strategy (2025-2028), would inspire member states to do the same, saying:  

“The Netherlands believes transitioning away from fossil fuels is a public health imperative and hopes the new WHO roadmap to net zero will inspire member states to follow suit.”

Extreme weather driving awareness

Mexico’s delegate describes how extreme weather has sensitized Mexicans to the “urgency” of climate action.

Despite such gaps in the text, nation after nation talked about how the reality of the devastating effects of extreme weather and sea level rise is driving more awareness of the need to act. 

That included small island states, such as Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, and larger nations, from Pakistan to upper-income Mexico and high-income New Zealand. 

“Our delegation would like to approach this matter with a sense of urgency given the effects of the climate crisis that we’re living through,” Mexico said. “According to the World Meteorological Organization, Mexico had the weather event with the highest economic losses during 2023 – hurricane Otis,” she added, noting that in recent weeks, the country has now been facing a severe heatwave. 

“Climate change undermines the very foundations of our societies, threatening the security of our food systems and the safety of our homes and livelihoods. small island developing states including our sisters and brothers in the Pacific face threats to their very existence,” said New Zealand.

Clean and green healthcare 

Workers affix solar panels to roof of a new hospital in Alberton, South Africa. Opened in 2022, it features natural lighting, on-site grey water treatment and recycling.

Member states from the United Kingdom to Indonesia also applauded the resolution’s strong stance on advancing clean and greener health care – including through the new WHO Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATACH)

Launched at the UN Climate Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow in 2021, nearly 100 member states have joined the initiative, which promotes climate resilient health facilities – through knowledge exchange and voluntary country commitments to a stepwise set of low-carbon and, ultimately, net-zero targets.

“Indonesia is in the process of integrating a performance indicator on climate resilience and health facilities in the health sector master plan – meaning net zero emissions in health facilities by 2030,” said one delegate, describing the country’s plans and progress. She called upon WHO to support member states in accessing investments from the Green Climate Fund “and other financing mechanism dedicated to climate and health for promoting the implementation of green hospitals.” 

One Health, ecosystems and climate-smart agriculture

Ethiopia’s initiative has made tree planting a culture among Ethiopians, with more than 30 million people taking part every year during the summer rainy season,

Delegates’ statements also reflected an  increasingly nuanced understanding of the interlinkages between climate stability, biodiversity, sustainable food production and health. 

One Health – an issue that has become a volleyball in the pandemic agreement talks between rich and poor countries – even received a positive reference mention in the climate and health resolution – which a numbe of developing countries underlined as important.

“It’s important to bear in mind the importance of the One Health approach in the climate and health work,” said Colombia,”in particular, given the needs of protecting vital vital ecosystems like the Amazon, which is the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world –  and that plays a key role in climate in global health. “

Said Mexico, “climate justice for small scale farmers must also be coupled with the transformation of the food system”. She referred to the country’s ban on farm chemicals like glyphosate, as well as genetically modified corn. The Mexican moves have been hotly opposed by agribusness. But critics say both the GMO corn and glyphosate, a pesticide, have knock-on consequences for ecosystems, human health, livelhioods and sustainable food production.  

Ethiopia, meanwhile, is planting billions of trees to combat deforestation, soil erosion and flooding. The initiative has made tree planting a national past-time – although some critics have said it  needs better planning. In parallel, the country is promoting more “climate smart agriculture,” to improve nutrition and reduce biodiversity loss; improved urban waste management and electrification of transport. 

But finance remains key, Ethiopia’s delegate also underlined saying: “We urgently need increased international financing, technology transfer and capacity building support to protect our people from the climate.” 

Curbing plastic hazards 

Most plastics that are produced end up in landfills, the oceans, and open waste dumps of developing countries.

Plastics pollution was also described as a dangerous blight to health, climate and environment by countries as diverse as Thailand and Tanzania.

The new climate resolution should help measures to “reduce plastic pollution in the health sector”, observed Thailand, adding that the country is also “working to reduce exposure to micro-plastics, which have been found in human food, water, and air – causing oxidative stress, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity,” said the country’s WHA delegate, noting a recent ban on single use plastic bags, as well as initiatives to better manage health sector waste, much of it from plastics.

While not specifically mentioned in the climate resolution, most plastics are produced by by products of fossil fuel extraction, as the International Council of Nurses noted in a statement – and therefore the issues are intertwined.

Over the past 30 years, plastics production increased fourfold, with growth rates still rising exponentially

And the fossil fuels industry has ambitious plans to increase plastics production over the next 25 years – compensating for possible slackening of demand in the transport and energy sectors.

UN member states’ are meanwhile also engaged in tough negotiations over a treaty to curb plastic waste – facing off against stiff industry interests. WHO has proposed that it join the global treaty talks, providing expert advice to negotiators, and to a UN Environment Science Policy Panel on chemicals, waste and pollution. The panel is set to convene in Geneva for it’s third meeting from 17-21 June.   

Russia protests WHO offer of health expertise to UN science panel on chemicals, waste and pollution 

Russia’s delegate objects to linking, plastics pollution, health and climate.

The WHO proposal to join the UN Environment Science Panel, as well as member state references to the linkages between health, climate and plastics brought a stiff response from the Russian Federation:

“We’d  like to draw your attention to how inadmissible it is to shift our focus from the issue of the impact on health of climate change – and pollution through plastic waste in order to focus on combating plastic itself,” the Russian delegate stated. “We must ensure an impartial, objective comprehensive comparison of plastic products with products made using alternative materials.”  

“Russia cannot support the idea of WHO providing Secretariat functions for the Science Policy Panel to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste,” the delegate added. . 

He also called for WHO to keep the health care sector out of the center of deliberations over new UN treaty on plastics pollution – despite healthcare’s outsize consumption of single use plastics.

“We do not support the proposal that the main goal of the international treaty on plastic should be the issue of health care,” said the Russian delegate, disassociating the Federation from references to the WHO ATACH initiative on health sector resilience, as well. 

‘Gender equality’  

Prior to it’s approval, the draft climate and health resolution also was the focus of a back door struggle on its references to gender-related language, also led by Russia and other socially conservative  states.  

To reach consensus, references to “‘gender responsive/sensitive’ climate action and health systems” were removed from the final draft. That was in response to critics who said the words could imply recognition of  LGBTQI groups  – whose activities are banned and even criminalized in many countries around the world. 

The final draft saw just one single reference to “action on climate change and health that is more integrated, coherent and advances gender equality, in line with Sustainable Development Goals.”

Even so, the Russian Federation disassociated it from that reference, as well, after the draft was aprpoved, saying that terms like gender in/equalities “does not enjoy agreement.” 

Retorted Belgium, on behalf of the European Union: “We are rolling back on many years of substantial progress on human rights and gender, reducing our ability to mitigate climate change and of WHO to lead effective programs on the ground.” 

Image Credits: Flickr – joiseyshowaa,, Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth, Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash, Plastics Atlas, 2019.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.