For the Health of the People, We Must Have Health for the Planet

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres urges the health community to recognize and act upon the intrinsic climate and health connection during the 69th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

Image: Some 3500 delegates from WHO’s 194 Member States – including a large proportion of the world’s health ministers – are attending the Health Assembly, which ends on 28 May | Image Credit: WHO/L. Cipriani

The World Health Assembly, held annually in Geneva, Switzerland, is the supreme decision-making body of the World Health Organization. The 69th World Health Assembly is currently taking place this year, from May 23 – 28, and discusses some of the world’s most pressing global health issues, including the challenges have grown far more numerous and complex. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres addressed the 69th World Health Assembly as the day two keynote speaker, devoting her discussion to the nexus between climate change and global health.

Figueres began her address by noting that the Paris Agreement has broken every UN record there is – the most countries to convene to adopt an agreement, the most nations to agree to an international accord, and the most signatories to an international agreement in a single day. She urged that we must build upon the successes we’ve seen so far on climate change through ambitious action, and is hopeful that in doing so, we can see dramatic impacts on global health as well.

In addressing climate change, we’re going to see positive impacts on health, Figueres explained – cleaner air, safer water, and more secure food supplies. Conversely, continued inaction on climate change will exacerbate current health crises, particularly climate’s impact on vector-borne diseases, which account for one-sixth of all deaths worldwide. She urged that the burden of addressing climate change for better health outcomes is highest in developing countries, where the rate of vector-borne diseases is 300 times the rate of developed countries

Developing countries cannot pursue climate change targets for their own purpose, but will act on their targets because of their sustainable development goals, she states. Figueres remains optimistic that by implementing the SDGs, we will achieve our climate targets.

In addressing the Assembly, Figueres noted the intrinsic connection between climate change and all 17 global goals, stating, “SDG 3 and 13 are so intimately related, they cannot be separated.”

She told ministers that now is the time for ambitious action that explicitly recognizes the health – climate nexus, urging that “The health community needs a climate agenda.”

Figueres urged specific action in three areas –

  1. Leaders much translate why we need to act on climate change – for the health of the planet, and the health of the people
  2. Leaders must strengthen the evidence base through growing research on the climate – health nexus
  3. Global stocktaking of the Paris Agreement every 5 years should include the positive impact that climate action is having on health

In her closing, Figueres re-emphasized that we need quick, ambitious action on climate change if we are to avoid a ‘tipping point’ beyond which the health impacts of climate change could be irreparable. Figueres closed by urging that the world has only five years to act — “We have five years to make an extraordinary difference.”

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