Mandeep Dhaliwal: We need a green recovery to prevent the next pandemic

Covid-19 is more than a health crisis. If the virus has taught the world anything, it is that ignoring our problems will not make them disappear: the threat of a pandemic loomed for decades, yet warnings were largely ignored. Efforts to tackle climate change have been met with a similar denial. Lack of coordinated, decisive action while Antarctica melts and extreme weather events become the norm means the world is losing its opportunity to avoid another catastrophe.

The health of the world’s people and of the environment are not just parallel challenges—they are inherently intertwined. Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease like Ebola, HIV, and SARS, meaning it is transmitted from animals to humans. Experts have linked climate change with greater geographic spread of these infectious diseases, while ongoing practices that damage our climate and environment make the situation even worse.

Despite the environment’s clear impact on human health, the health and climate communities have often worked separately. That started to change this past May, when 350 health organizations representing over 40 million global health professionals called for a “green recovery” from covid-19. The following month on World Environment Day, the UN Development Programme and other global institutions reiterated the interdependencies between humans and their environment and united around key actions for a “transformative” green recovery. It is time to respond urgently to these voices in calling for a greener and healthier world. We owe it to future generations to build back better. To do so requires renewed and stronger partnership between the climate and health communities.

For a truly green recovery, climate and health activists must come together to address practices that harm both people and planet. For example, the destruction of animal habitats through deforestation—which has been increasing steadily for decades—puts animals in closer contact with humans, allowing new viruses to pass between them. Vendors across the globe sell wildlife in crowded, poorly regulated markets, providing an ideal environment for zoonotic diseases to spread. Not only do these practices hurt humans, but they also devastate the world’s ecosystems: the UN Environmental Programme estimates illegal wildlife trafficking to be a multibillion-dollar business that pushes endangered species to the brink of extinction.

Fortunately, countries are starting to take action to address these issues. While the Global Wildlife Program is working to reduce poaching, trafficking, and demand for illegal wildlife products around the world, platforms like UN-REDD are enabling countries to better monitor forest degradation with cost-effective technologies, satellite data and open-source software. However, live animal markets were only temporarily banned after the SARS outbreak and again after the arrival of covid-19. More work needs to be done to enforce these measures, including by integrating health and environmental protection into countries’ broader efforts for economic and social recovery from covid-19.

In addition to stronger environmental measures, a green recovery requires that we protect the most vulnerable during climate-induced crises by building health systems that are resilient to shocks. As the pandemic has revealed large gaps in health systems’ capacities, governments must invest in measures to support countries in conducting disease surveillance, improving the resilience of health services, and training health workers to respond to threats. Countries must also adopt policies and procedures that ensure equitable access to health services, particularly for vulnerable and marginalized groups who are more likely to suffer from the effects of climate change.

Governments can also take action to reduce the environmental impact of health systems themselves: health supply chains—including the production, transport, and disposal of goods and services—currently contribute to 71% of health care’s greenhouse gas emissions. By implementing “climate-smart” policies that reduce health care’s carbon footprint, the health sector can play a critical role in preventing future emergencies.

Finally, governments need to apply lessons learned from covid-19 to urgently embed intertwined health and environmental reforms into efforts to rebuild their economies. Countries can begin by involving experts from both fields, young climate advocates, and civil society in key recovery decisions in order to assess these policies’ impacts on climate and health. Taking these steps will not only allow countries to build back better from covid-19, but will allow them to fulfill their Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goal commitments.

As global leaders, activists, and researchers convene virtually later this month for Climate Week, countries will have a unique opportunity to unite behind the urgent need to meet shared goals. Together, we must act urgently to slow the effects of climate change, build people-centered and resilient health systems and implement innovative approaches to ensure we are better prepared for the inevitable. By joining forces, the health and climate communities can drive progress toward a sustainable, green recovery from covid-19 and more ambitious climate action while advancing health for both people and the planet.

Mandeep Dhaliwal, director of HIV, Health and Development at the United Nations Development Programme.

Competing interests: None declared.