Why human health must be at the center of climate action

The United Nations General Assembly week in New York in September was a global stock-taking exercise aimed at understanding where the world collectively stands on progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ahead of the 10 years remaining to achieve the 2030 agenda.

That week of stock-taking identified that although we have made progress in certain areas — such as infant and maternal mortality, poverty and infectious diseases — we are falling dangerously behind in efforts to reach the Global Goals. The natural environment is rapidly deteriorating because of climate change and collapsing ecosystems, global hunger is on the rise and at least half of the world’s population lacks access to essential healthcare services.

Two of the greatest challenges facing the 2030 agenda, climate change and public health, were strongly displayed in September. The U.N. Secretary General’s Climate Summit brought together world leaders to ramp up ambition for climate mitigation. By the summit, 65 countries committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and 87 companies had joined the "Business Ambition for 1.5˚C- Our Only Future" campaign. (As of Dec. 11, 177 companies had signed the pledge). Alongside the Climate Summit, the U.N. hosted the High Level Political Forum on Universal Health Coverage, where countries signed the Political Declaration on "On Universal Health Coverage: moving together to build a healthier world" (PDF).

Although the high-level meetings on climate change and universal health coverage were held as separate negotiations in September, growing evidence suggests that the systematic failures inducing these grave challenges are interconnected.

A recent Lancet report explains that the challenges facing obesity, undernutrition and climate change make up a syndemic (synergies of epidemics) "because they co-occur in time and place, interact with each other to produce complex sequelae, and share common underlying societal drivers." Another Lancet commission publication, "Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems," demonstrates that existing policies, incentives and subsidies in the food system cause unhealthy diets and unsustainable agricultural practices simultaneously. These reports demonstrate that the common systemic drivers that cause our global institutions to produce results that hinder the 2030 agenda require a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to create long-lasting solutions.

That is why the U.N. Global Compact’s "Health is Everyone’s Business" action platform in September published the "Business Leadership Brief for Healthy Planet, Healthy People." Launched at a side event to the U.N. General Assembly, the report calls on businesses to take an integrated approach to simultaneously improve the health of people and the planet. The report highlights that many challenges facing the planet and the health of people are interlinked: air pollution and climate change; water, sanitation and hygiene; and food and nutrition (see below).

The private sector has a substantial role to play in addressing the joint challenges facing the health of people and the planet. Companies can exacerbate these challenges by, among other things, releasing greenhouse gas emissions, having suppliers in areas without access to proper sanitation and hygiene, and having employees with unhealthy diets that hamper their productivity.

The private sector also can positively contribute to solving these challenges. "Especially through energy renovation of buildings, we can contribute simultaneously to addressing environmental and health concerns, to the benefit of residents and the planet," said Mirella Vitale, senior vice president for marketing, communications and public affairs at ROCKWOOL Group.

The findings of the report highlight three key insights that can help companies create effective and lasting solutions that address the health of people and planet.

1. Understand and communicate the business case for action

Addressing environmental and climate determinants of health can provide strong business outcomes across many touchpoints in the value chain.

In the report, Steve Rochlin, CEO of Impact ROI, highlights mounting evidence that companies that take an integrated approach to climate and environment outperform their competitors across a range of vital key performance indicators (KPIs) including increased share price by as much as 6 percent and increased sales value by as much as 20 percent.

Mette Søs Lassesen, market director for the Environment & Health business at Ramboll, an engineering, design and consultancy company, reports that "most of our environment-related work focuses on human health outcomes, as well as environmental impacts — the two are inextricably related. We have found that business strategies that include health and well-being as a component of a broader sustainability focus improve competitive advantage and increase market opportunity."

Minimizing health risks associated with air pollution, climate risks, poor water quality, sanitation and hygiene, and poor diets can reduce absenteeism, reduce presenteeism, reduce healthcare costs, increase productivity, and increase employee retention. Considering air pollution as an example, industry studies have found that poor air quality reduces consumption, hinders executive recruitment and contributes substantial healthcare costs to the company.

2. Taking a systems approach is necessary to develop integrated and long-lasting solutions

Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, wrote in the business leadership brief: "We need to acknowledge the deeply interconnected nature of challenges we are facing , and accept that addressing them will require fundamental changes in the way we think and operate."

In her recent article on GreenBiz, Uren outlined six steps to build a sustainability strategy based on a systems approach. Consider those steps in the context of taking action on the interconnected challenges facing the health of people and planet:

  • Understand the world as a set of interconnected issues. It is necessary to see the interconnections between challenges such as air pollution and respiratory illness and find the transformative solutions that have the greatest co-benefits across the system. For example, transforming the food system can have co-benefits for the health of the planet and the health of people. Jessica Appelgren, vice president of communications at Impossible Foods, explained: "Compared to using cows to produce beef, plant-based meat uses less water, less land, and it is fundamentally a lot less expensive to produce, which means that at scale, we should be able to produce meats that are not only delicious but more affordable. This will have a huge impact on global food security, while also sparing the earth's surface for biodiversity and wildlife."
  • Identify where you can make the biggest possible impact on the system, ideally in a way that drives value back to the business, either directly or indirectly. In order for your strategy to tackle challenges facing the health of the planet and people to be sustainable over time, it must include benefits to the business such as reduced healthcare costs or any other business case examples we presented above.
  • Design clear theories of change. Action towards challenges such as air pollution must be supported by clear change models that highlight the inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes and impact. Using such models allows for continued evaluation of assumptions about the linkages between actions and outcomes.
  • Design for transformational, not incremental change. The challenges of environmental degradation and human health require immediate transformative action. Strategies must be directed towards the conditions that constrict the functioning of the system. For example, the food system must remove wasteful agricultural subsidies that promote unsustainable practices and make unhealthy foods cheaper than fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Be clear about what you can do alone and when you need to collaborate. Many challenges at the nexus of human and environmental health affect public goods such as urban air quality, and therefore cannot be solved individually. Forming collaborations with the right incentives for each stakeholder to push the ambition of the group can generate great success in tackling these challenges. Anna Brodowsky, vice president of public affairs at Essity, a hygiene and health company, emphasized the need for collaboration: "Poor hygiene and sanitation constitute barriers for the health, livelihood and well-being of millions of people and we believe that in order to generate global solutions we must work together to promote health and continue our innovations addressing both people and environmental needs."
  • Check your assumptions about how change happens. Solutions to complex issues are not often successful without multi-pronged approaches that shift mindsets and change.

3. Strategically integrate health into your environment and climate strategies

The last key insight outlined in our report is the need for strategic integration of health into environmental strategies across the value chain. Companies demonstrating leadership on planetary health challenges exhibit competencies in working collaboratively across disciplines and functional silos and across organizational boundaries to serve people and the planet. Two attributes are essential to successful business leadership on planetary health:

The first is the mastery of intent — the ability to intentionally design and implement solutions, such as programs, policies and products, which tackle global problems at the intersection of public health and the environment, thereby achieving more than the sums of both parts.

The second is the mastery of integration — the ability to design a corporate strategy that aligns teams, policies and targets around these integrated solutions.

Ambitious action to solve challenges facing the health of people and planet requires that companies design solutions at the intersection of public health and the environment built within a corporate strategy that aligns the proper teams, policies and targets. The Health and Environment Strategy integration matrix below shows that companies must reach quadrant D through forming integrated strategic value of health across the value chain.

Health as a leading indicator for environmental progress

In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we must put aside incremental change and target transformative opportunities that realign the ways in which systems operate.

When it comes to achieving a healthy planet for healthy people, we believe human health must become a leading indicator for environmental progress. With 23 percent, or 12.6 million, deaths globally attributed to environmental risk and $5.11 trillion in welfare losses every year caused by air pollution, transformative change will take place only if companies begin to measure the health and welfare losses associated with their environmental impact.

By using health as a leading indicator of progress for environmental and climate action, companies will find a compelling business case for action by uncovering cost savings and risk reductions that otherwise would go unseen. Finally, tying progress with the human and emotional case of human health improvement can elevate the attractiveness of solutions to business leaders, employees and consumers.

Leading businesses understand the urgency of taking ambitious action on planetary health and more need to follow suit. Pam Cheng, executive vice president of operations and IT at AstraZeneca, stressed the urgency to act:  "Our collective response to climate change over the next 10 years will define health and wellness globally for generations to come. We do not have the next 50 years to make a difference. The time is now."