COP28: A significant moment for climate and health

Nigel Sullivan, Chief Sustainability and People Officer at Bupa, reflects on a hectic COP28 and the breakthroughs that were delivered on both global health and climate.

COP28: A significant moment for climate and health

Image: Luke Nicholls for edie

At this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP), delegates showed a clear ambition for collective climate action, and a consensus on the need to protect communities, economies, and our health. In order to leverage this momentum, we must move at pace to form vital partnerships and drive meaningful progress that will get the world on track for a net zero future.

As stakeholders navigate how the announcements and final agreement, which for the first time agrees that countries will begin reducing fossil fuel consumption, impact their 2024 sustainability priorities, there are a few initial key takeaways that have captured our attention for our climate and health ambitions next year:

Climate and health is firmly on the global agenda

COP28 was an opportunity to put health firmly on the global climate agenda through the first ever dedicated ‘Health Day’ which acknowledged that climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity.

To meet the health needs of the present without compromising the health of future generations, we must work towards a net zero, resilient health system and embrace sustainable healthcare – delivering high quality care, while minimising the impact on the environment wherever possible, and focusing on preventative measures that keep people well and empower them to make healthy lifestyle choices.

For the first time, over 120 health ministers came together with a clear desire to accelerate climate and health action, backed by the global healthcare community. This resulted in a new Climate and Health Declaration acknowledging the need for governments to protect communities and prepare healthcare systems to cope with climate-related health impacts such as extreme heat, air pollution and infectious diseases. This political commitment was backed up by a new set of finance commitments on climate and health – which will be essential to deliver the change needed.

The Declaration is a promising step in the right direction. But now we must capitalise on the appetite for transformation through cross-border partnerships and worldwide solutions if we’re to address the climate and health threats facing the global population. The private sector has a critical role in driving this change by ensuring that we play our role in decarbonising our operations, and also proactively forge innovative collaborations to drive wider change – through, for example, the Sustainable Markets Initiative, which Bupa has recently joined, which is tasked with convening, aligning and engaging companies on this agenda,

The power of brands to accelerate sustainable consumer behaviour

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already highlighted that public action could save 5% of ‘demand-side’ carbon emissions – and there is a very clear opportunity for the private sector to leverage the power of their brands and storytelling to encourage sustainable choices alongside efforts to decarbonise their operations. From our perspective, that means working to meet our science-based targets to reduce our carbon footprint, raising awareness of the health benefits associated with tackling climate action, and supporting behaviours that can improve both people and planet health.

It was encouraging to see the business community show up in full force at COP28, joining cross-industry discussions and forums to share ideas, present new research and evidence to drive progress, and announce commitments aimed at achieving transformational progress. The Climate and Health Coalition launched a new toolkit aimed at helping the private sector act on climate and health, and business representatives outlined the opportunity for organisations to educate people on the impact of climate change and the argument for climate action.

Local action can supercharge national and global efforts

Another first-of-its-kind event at COP28 highlighted the critical role local leaders play in reducing emissions, addressing climate risk, and supercharging national efforts to move further and faster on climate progress. Hundreds of leaders including mayors and governors engaged in discussions during the Local Climate Action Summit, which involved the launch of a new Coalition that will amplify their voice and contribution towards accelerating climate action. There were a number of announcements to support this agenda including a new cohort of cities joining an initiative that aims to fight air pollution, and a new nature programme with commitments to advance nature positive development in urban environments.

With city residents facing some of the worst health impacts of climate change, we need to act quickly to safeguard the health of urban communities around the world. In a scenario where no further climate action is taken, research shows that over 1.6 billion residents in 970 cities will face extreme heat, 800 million residents in 570 cities will be at risk from flooding as a result of sea-level rises and 650 million people in 500 cities will experience increased freshwater insecurity. Currently, 56% of the world’s population (4.4 billion people) live in urban centres, and with this expected to rise to 70% by 20503, cities across the globe must take centre stage in addressing the health impacts of climate change.

To accelerate action towards healthy and sustainable cities for people to live in, we need effective and action-led cross-sector partnership. This was highlighted at an event Bupa co-hosted at COP28, along with the Norman Foster Foundation, Lancet Countdown and C40 Cities where we launched our new co-authored report, addressed the health risks caused by the climate crisis, and discussed the need to reimagine cities so that they better support people and planet health – with calls for collaboration across local city officials, businesses, architecture and engineering experts, and healthcare professionals, to address this issue on a global scale.

It’s time to fast-track action on climate and health

There was a huge amount discussed and debated during COP28, and it’s time to transform the intent and ideas into concrete solutions. From our perspective, there’s a real opportunity to tackle the climate and health crisis but we recognise that moving forward on this agenda is no small task; it will require companies showing strong, consistent and transparent climate action (supported by science), and cross-sector and cross-border collaboration to truly shift the dial.

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