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Driving Co-Benefits for Climate and Health: How private sector action can accelerate progress

21st September 2021 Amanda Reaume 4 min read

Climate change and pollution obviously have a big impact on public health. But can we actually leverage climate mitigation strategies to have positive effects for both the environment and human health?

That’s the question that Forum for the Future, in collaboration with Walgreen Boots Alliance, GSK Consumer Healthcare and Bupa, has been exploring. Their findings are out in a new Report ‘Driving Co-Benefits for Climate and Health – How private sector action can accelerate progress’, published today on the Forum’s website.

Systemic challenges require thoughtful solutions

Taking the same name as the Report, “Driving Co-Benefits for Climate and Health: How private sector action can accelerate progress,” a Climate Week NYC’s The Hub Live event, took a deep dive into this important question. The panel featured Dr. Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, who was joined by representatives of the partners organizations and Jane Burston, Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund.

“Both climate change and public health are systemic challenges. They are multifaceted, they are multicausal. Action on one has the ability to impact the other,” said Uren. “Every action that the private sector can take on net zero can also drive benefits for health.”

The challenge, Uren notes, is in ensuring the actions the private sector decides to take strategically maximize the potential co-benefits.

We can work for a healthier planet and healthier people

The report gives tangible examples of how climate change is affecting health and how companies can intervene to have an impact.

One example is air quality. “Poor air quality is affecting the majority of people on our planet today,” said Dr Teri Lyng, Senior VP and Head of Transformation and Sustainability at GSK Consumer Healthcare. “Addressing air pollution is something…that is necessary and takes a lot of players to work on…If we can work on improving air quality, it will be beneficial in slowing climate change.”

Air pollution is a mental health issue

Dr. Paula Franklin, Chief Medical Officer of Bupa, agreed that air pollution is a physical health issue, but sees it also in terms of mental health.  “There is no safe level of air pollution when it comes to your mental health,” she said, citing studies showing its negative effects. “It’s not just the air quality that can impact your mental health, it can be directly impacted by climate disasters and the consequences of climate change.”

In fact, she said that studies are coming out about the direct connections between climate change and wellbeing. “There are new terms that are emerging: ecological anxiety and climate grief,” she explained. “Young people are understanding and seeing the impact of climate change and feeling hopeless about the possibilities for the future.”

Climate change is leading to more cases of malaria

Another climate-related health issue is malaria, said Richard Ellis, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility at Walgreen Boots Alliance.

“We thought that malaria was being tamed. Death rates were falling…but then progress stalled because of climate change and the fact that mosquitos can now thrive in countries they used not to be able to,” he said. “One child [is] dying every two minutes. Climate change means we have to start the campaign against malaria again.”

It’s better to deploy holistic solutions

When it comes to creating a healthier planet and population, the best strategies often overlap.

For example, Franklin believes that better municipal design can make communities more walkable. Reducing the distance people have to travel to go to the store could allow them to walk and bike more, she said. Green spaces in cities also make a difference, she noted. “There is an abundance of evidence that green spaces have a huge impact on mental health.”

Jane Burston, of the Clean Air Fund, thinks air pollution is important to tackle immediately. “Unlike climate change, air pollution is an issue that is localized, it’s immediate, it tangibly affects people in their communities every day,” she said. “If done right, working on air pollution can also promote equity. All over the world, it is the lowest incomes and most marginalized people who are exposed.”

Healthcare companies can create health and planet synergies

Healthcare companies should be looking at their own operations to find ways they can foster co-benefits.

“If the global healthcare sector were a country it would be the fifth highest polluter,” said Franklin. That’s why Bupa is focused on reducing the company’s environmental footprint while also providing better healthcare. The company has an app that allows patients to access virtual healthcare visits and also estimates how much carbon was saved in transportation and building emissions by choosing a digital consultation.

Government plays a role in making today’s world healthier

Ellis believes governments can help spur healthcare companies to act. “The idea that you can’t bid for a government contract unless you have science-based or net-zero targets is something that I’m very supportive of”, he said. 

Ultimately, climate change mitigation strategies that have a direct positive impact on patient health are critical.