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Healthcare Can Act on Climate to Seize What the Lancet Calls the 21st Century's Biggest Opportunity

22nd August 2015

By Andrew Matthews, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR

This blog was originally published by BSR, a global nonprofit business network and consultancy dedicated to sustainability. It is republished here with permission.

Finally, some good climate news from a scientific journal: According to the Lancet, addressing the human systems and development effects of climate change represents the most significant global health opportunity of the 21st century.

The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change—formed to prioritize the assessment of climate change’s impacts and policy responses in pursuit of high standards of global health—makes clear that “the effects of climate change are being felt today, and future projections represent an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health.” The direct effects, such as extreme weather events; indirect effects, including air pollution and degraded water quality; and social dynamics, like mass migrations and resource pressures, are exacerbated by our carbon-intensive economy. These events will increasingly create unsustainable living conditions with devastating impacts on human health.

The commission outlines several policy options to decarbonize the economy while achieving economic, environmental, and health benefits. The only barrier to these solutions, the commission says, is political will.

The good news is that companies do not need to wait for governments to act. The report frames the opportunity as one that can be addressed by the skills and capabilities of the healthcare community. Given their trusted role in society, medical providers have a critical role to play.

At BSR, we also see a role for the broader healthcare sector. Several companies—including GSK,Merck, and Novo Nordisk—are already taking action to set goals, manage, and report on climate adaptation and mitigation performance. Tackling short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon, which contribute to climate change and also have adverse effects on human health, is another way healthcare companies can realize health co-benefits from climate investments.

To have an even greater effect on climate change, there are three main roles for the healthcare industry:

  • Actor: Healthcare companies can not only reduce their emissions, they can enhance adaptive capacity by framing climate investments as a business-aligned priority to support product quality, supply chain continuity, and workforce health and safety—in addition to improved patient outcomes.
  • Enabler: The healthcare sector can help increase workforce productivity, most notably in low-income markets with large agricultural supply chains, by providing treatments for the vector- and water-borne diseases that are on the rise due to climate change. Addressing these climate-related health challenges will lead to healthier, more productive, and more stable workers and communities.
  • Advocate: Climate change provides an opportunity for new voices to influence the global policy conversation, and the healthcare sector can provide leadership by defining priorities for the industry, setting ambitious agendas, and advocating for industry-friendly climate change policy that will improve global health.

BSR’s Business in a Climate-Constrained World initiative is helping accelerate private-sector action on climate change, and the healthcare sector has a true opportunity to make progress on this global challenge. To learn more about our work on climate and health, please contact our climate and healthcare teams.