Climate Change, Justice, and Public Health – Plenary Session–14th European Public Health Conference, 10th – 12th November 2021 

December 14, 2021

By Maisie Jones, Key Correspondent and Professional Intern with the Irish Global Health Network

Date: 14 December 2021

This session was moderated by Caroline Costongs, Director of EuroHealthNet. The panellists were Maria Neira, Director of Environment, Climate Change, and Health at the World Health Organisation (WHO), Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director at the European Environment Agency, Monica Scatasta, Director at the Council of Europe Development Bank, and Patrick ten Brink, Deputy Secretary General and Director of EU Policy at the European Environmental Bureau.  

This plenary session discussed the four COP26 goals of Mitigation, Adaptation, Finance and Collaboration, exploring how health and equity can be further mainstreamed within these climate actions.

Moderator Caroline Costongs first talked about how climate change, environmental degradation and health inequalities are strongly interrelated. She pointed out that even the most conservative estimations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that the global rise in temperature will cause a climate crisis several times the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms. Costongs acknowledged that there have been a lot of successes but that more changes need to be made to alleviate the climate crisis. She pointed out that we are in an important period of transition now, and that as public health professionals we have a responsibility to help where we can and to make sure it is a fair transition where everyone is on board, and everyone is supported.  

Ms. Costongs then introduced the four panelists and explained that they will each add to the conversation from the point of view of the four COP26 goals, each with a focus on equity as a cross-cutting topic, while also addressing the role of public health professionals to address the challenges we are facing. 

 The session began with Maria Neira outlining 10 WHO recommendations to help alleviate the climate crisis. These recommendations were:  

1: Commit to a healthy green and just recovery from COVID-19. 

Ms. Neira expressed that the slogan of “leave no-one behind” has not been fulfilled. She stated that in fact we are already leaving people behind, millions of people, because they are more affected by climate change and air pollution because they are poor, or living in the wrong places compared to rich people. 

2: Our health is not negotiable.  

It is not a case of asking the COP negotiators to please include health in the conversation, she explained; health is a right and breathing clean air should be a human right as well. She warned that continued use of fossil fuels will ensure that this right is not met.  

3: Promote healthy climate commitments.  

Ms. Neira spoke about national determined contributions (NDCs) which, she explained, are a measure of how much governments are prioritising climate interventions, and whether they are prioritising interventions that have the largest health benefits. She urged the audience to put pressure on our own countries to identify these interventions and protect health. 

4: Health systems need to be more resilient and environmentally sustainable.  

Ms. Neira explained that collectively the health systems of developed countries represent 5% of the total global carbon emissions. She advised that we as health systems can lead by example by reducing our own emissions.  

5: Transition to healthy, clean, renewable sources of energy.  

She warned that we need to stop the use of fossil fuels, which are literally killing us.  

6: Transform human environments.  

Ms. Neira advised that we need liveable cities, with more green spaces, to promote a less sedentary lifestyle, with less exposure to air pollution, and to reduce inequities. 

7: Restore nature.  

We need to stop polluting food, water, and air sources, according to Ms. Neira.  

8: Promote healthy, sustainable, and resilient food systems.  

We throw away 30% of food production, Ms. Neira explained, and we could save 5 million lives per year through healthy food systems.  

9: Stop subsidising pollution.  

Ms. Neira informed us that there is currently a $6 trillion annual subsidy to the fossil fuel industry, and this money could be better spent to finance a healthier, fairer, and greener future.  

10: We as a health community need to mobilise. 

This climate crisis is affecting our health, and we want to see more action. We need to influence as many sectors as possible to protect public health and promote fairer practices, Ms. Neira advised.  

Moderator Caroline Costongs then turned to the other panelists to join the conversation. She began by asking Hans Bruyninckx the question; how do we need to adapt our societies to the impacts of the climate crisis?  

Mr. Bruyninckx began by explaining that the role of the European Environment Agency (EEA) is underpinning with knowledge the policy actions that are taken and that this is critical in the case of climate adaptation. There is still a lot of knowledge that needs to be developed and linked to policies addressing the issues, he explained. He continued by stating that climate change impacts increasingly include the health effects of climate change. We already live in the times of loss and damage, and we need to understand the loss and damage to health, he advised.  

Mr Bruyninckx finished by informing us that the EU has a climate adaptation strategy that talks about a smarter, faster, systemic adaptation, as well as a just resilience. This just resilience needs a stronger knowledge base, there is a need to better understand vulnerabilities and exposure to climate impacts on health, according to Mr. Bruyninckx.  

Moderator Caroline Costongs next posed a question to Monica Scatasta; how can public and private banks help with a greener and fairer transition?  

Ms. Scatasta stated that in Europe today the biggest threat to the green transition is a false sense of opposition between climate and social issues. Her opinion is that we need to find a way to overcome this false dichotomy. The pandemic has laid bare the interconnectedness of our world, and financial institutions need to develop their understanding of the nexus between social inclusion (or lack thereof) and the climate crisis, according to Ms. Scatasta. The most vulnerable in society are the hardest hit by the climate crisis, she continued, often due to a lack of access to housing, finance, and basic services including health services.  

Ms. Scatasta went on to make some recommendations on how banks can help. One thing that needs to happen, according to Ms. Scatasta, is that developed countries need to meet funding commitments to the developing world. But more than this, there needs to be an increase in funding for adaptation.

Furthermore, there needs to be a systemic change in economies and societies, she explained, and that we need to align all financial flows, whether linked with climate action or not, to meet the goals of the Paris agreement. Ms. Scatasta agreed with Ms. Neria’s recommendation that subsidies for fossil fuels need to be discontinued. Her final recommendation was that there is a need to measure and report on how money is spent.  

Finally Ms. Costongs moved to Patrick ten Brink for the topic of collaboration and posed the question; governments, businesses, and civil society need to all work together, but how can we make sure we hear the voices of those who are not sitting at the table?  

Mr. ten Brink started by advising that stakeholders should realise that climate, health, and environment are a joint challenge and should be a common cause. A common cause is the basis for collaboration, he continued. No one can deny that global warning and climate change related fires and floods have major health, social, and economic impacts, he explained, and the more we can avoid global warming the more we can avoid health impacts.  

We already knew the effects of pollution on rates of cancer, reproductive health, and dementia, Mr. ten Brink acknowledged, but that now we see another concerning interaction of climate and health. This is that pollution pressures and chemical exposures weaken our bodies immune systems and ability to fight Covid-19. 

Furthermore, the risk of zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19 been shown to be related to the level of destruction of nature and humanities encroachment on nature, he explained. So, to minimise the risks of a repetition of this pandemic, we need to change our attitude to the exploitation of nature. There is a need to recognise that climate and environmental issues and health issues, social issues, and economic issues are all interconnected, and to move towards collaboration on our common future, he advised.  

To answer the question posed, Mr. ten Brink stated that governments have been elected to serve public interest, and so they should listen to the voices of civil society and citizens at large. Civil society are a key player in the health of our democracy, he continued, by putting insights of concerned citizens into the decision-making process, and often giving a voice to those who would otherwise not be at the table. Democracy is more than one vote every 4 years, he acknowledged, it is about actively listening to citizens and society, understanding the concerns, hearing the solutions, and heeding what they say so that we can make a difference.  

At COP26, NGOs were blocked from many meetings, so didn’t have a seat at the table and via them being a voice for others, other people didn’t have a seat at the table, Mr ten Brink explained. 

Furthermore, fossil fuel lobbyists were more numerous at COP26 than any single country representation. This is not the way forward, he pointed out. We don’t want those arguing against progress having the loudest voice, we want those arguing for progress to be heard. To achieve this, there is a need for investment in the civil society space, with a focus on youth, indigenous people, and minorities of all types, he concluded.  




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