Our health is not negotiable

WHO puts health at centre of climate change mitigation recommendations

In the run up to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland in November, “the most consequential summit that has ever taken place anywhere in the world”, as UK politician Ed Milliband puts it – the World Health Organisation has stepped up to the plate and delivered a clarion call to world leaders from the world’s health community to urgently tackle the climate crisis.

The WHO COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health, titled “The health argument for climate action” launched 11 October, is a 10 point prescription for climate action which puts our health front and centre of the argument.

“Health will be the motivation to do more to tackle climate change,” Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health, emphasised.

The report, based on a growing body of research, establishes the many and inseparable links between climate and health.

It opens with these words from Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO: “Extreme heat, floods, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes: 2021 has broken many records. The climate crisis is upon us, powered by our addiction to fossil fuels. The consequences for our health are real and often devastating.

“Climate change impacts health in all countries, but it hits people in low- and middle-income countries the hardest. Any delay in acting on this global health threat will disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged around the world. The Covid-19 pandemic is a visceral example of the inequitable impacts of such a global threat. To fully address the urgency of both these crises, we need to confront the inequalities that lie at the root of so many global health challenges.

“Health and equity are central to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and to making COP26 a success. Protecting health requires action well beyond the health sector, in energy, transport, nature, food systems, finance and more. The 10 recommendations outlined in this report – and the action points, resources and case studies that support them – provide concrete examples of interventions that, with support, can be scaled up rapidly to safeguard our health and our climate.”

Global health community consensus

The report represents a broad consensus statement from the global health community on the priority actions governments need to take to tackle the climate crisis, restore biodiversity, and protect health.

Explaining the recommendations, Dr Diarmid Campbell- Lendrum, Team Lead, WHO Climate Change and Health, noted that part of the recommendations deal with things we have to do to protect our health “and these are not negotiable. Our health is not negotiable”, he emphasised.

This includes the need to protect and restore nature. “All health depends on natural ecosystems. We have to end this war on nature if we are to protect our health,” he said.

“We also have to make a healthy recovery from Covid-19 and make our health systems more resilient against climate risks. We know these climate risks are escalating, but health systems are receiving inadequate support for this.”

And we have to transition to clean energy, and reduce the number of deaths from air pollution, which is estimated to be around 7 million a year, he said.

The cost of climate change mitigation

Globally, governments spend in excess of 4 trillion dollars a year subsidising fossil fuels, according to the International Monetary Fund [1]. When weighed against this – money that must be transitioned to clean energy subsidies – the health benefits from implementing ambitious climate actions far outweigh the costs.

“We know that if we were to comply with the Paris Agreement targets, the health gains alone will pay for the cost of mitigation twice over. So we need to value these gains and put them into our plans,” Dr Campbell-Lendrum said.

Dr Neira reiterated the point: “Tackling climate change represents a public health agenda and a big opportunity for public health. Whatever you spend on tackling climate change will be outweighed by the benefits. So there are no excuses. The health argument is very strong.”


WHO’s 10 climate and health recommendations for COP26

The WHO’s COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health, The health argument for climate action” includes 10 recommendations that highlight the urgent need and numerous opportunities for governments to prioritize health and equity while mitigating climate change and promoting the sustainable development agenda.

  1. Commit to a healthy recovery. Commit to a healthy, green and just recovery from Covid-19.
  2. Our health is not negotiable. Place health and social justice at the heart of the UN climate talks.
  3. Harness the health benefits of climate action. Prioritize those climate interventions with the largest health-, social- and economic gains.
  4. Build health resilience to climate risks. Build climate resilient and environmentally sustainable health systems and facilities, and support health adaptation and resilience across sectors.
  5. Create energy systems that protect and improve climate and health. Guide a just and inclusive transition to renewable energy to save lives from air pollution, particularly from coal combustion. End energy poverty in households and health care facilities.
  6. Reimagine urban environments, transport and mobility. Promote sustainable, healthy urban design and transport systems, with improved land-use, access to green and blue public space, and priority for walking, cycling and public transport.
  7. Protect and restore nature as the foundation of our health. Protect and restore natural systems, the foundations for healthy lives, sustainable food systems and livelihoods.
  8. Promote healthy, sustainable and resilient food systems. Promote sustainable and resilient food production and more affordable, nutritious diets that deliver on both climate and health outcomes.
  9. Finance a healthier, fairer and greener future to save lives. Transition towards a wellbeing economy.
  10. Listen to the health community and prescribe urgent climate action. Mobilize and support the health community on climate action.


The WHO Special Report on Climate Change and Health can be downloaded here:

1. Global Fossil Fuel Subsidies Remain Large: An Update Based on Country-Level Estimates. David Coady, Ian Parry, Nghia-Piotr Le, and Baoping Shang. IMF Working Paper. (2019)