Elaine Mulcahy: A healthy prescription for a cleaner future

In a powerful letter to be delivered during COP26, the world’s health community will call on world leaders to take real action to put the world on a path that protects people from catastrophic climate change. The “Healthy Climate Prescription” letter, which is expected to have the signatures of tens of thousands of health organisations and individuals by the time it is delivered to COP26, is a move by the international health community who are already responding to the health harms caused by climate change.

The letter comes on the back of a recent editorial, which was simultaneously published across more than 220 international health journals, that called for global warming to be limited by 1.5C and for human health and equity to be central to all climate change mitigation and adaptation actions.

In the letter, health professionals say fundamental changes to the way we live are needed to prevent a prolonged health crisis as a direct consequence of climate change. Since March 2020, more than 4.5 million people have died from covid. By comparison, they say air pollution accounts for more than 7 million premature deaths every year. Many more people die from extreme weather events, malnutrition, and illnesses caused by higher temperatures such as dehydration, renal function loss, skin cancers, and water- and vector- borne diseases. Health professionals say the direct and indirect impacts of climate change will lead to many more millions of people dying over many years if we do not act now. And we have the potential to turn it around—to invest in a fairer, healthier, cleaner, more sustainable way of life that will both protect the planet and improve our own health and wellbeing.

The 2021 Lancet Countdown on health and climate change is expected to be published over the coming weeks, with its annual assessment of how well governments worldwide are delivering the commitments they made under the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep global temperature rises below 2C by 2050. Targets have not been met. The world is currently on a trajectory for temperatures to have risen by 2.7-3.1C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. Current evidence makes clear that in order to prevent catastrophic health impacts and deaths, global warming must be limited to 1.5C. 

The letter states that every tenth of a degree in excess of 1.5C will take a toll on people’s lives and health, and that no one is safe from the risks. It is those who contributed least to the problem who are least able to protect themselves against it, and the onus is now on those wealthier nations who have benefitted most from the activities that caused the climate crisis to bear more of the cost burden of limiting warming.

The health editorial, Healthy Climate Prescription letter, and 2021 Lancet Countdown will be delivered by a team of children’s health professionals from across the UK who will travel on bikes from Great Ormond Street Hospital in London to COP26 in Glasgow. The “Ride for their Lives” team will stop at major cities along their journey accompanied by Pollution Pods, which will allow people to experience first-hand the impact of different levels of air pollution.

The final leg of their journey will take them to Glasgow, where the voice of the world’s health community will be heard loud and clear in a collective call to action for a healthy climate prescription based on tangible evidence. 

Specific actions being called for include national commitments to limit warming, a transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy solutions, high-income countries to transfer funds to low-income countries to help achieve targets, the development of resilient, low-carbon, sustainable health systems, and pandemic recovery that is consistent with climate action and reduces health inequalities.

An innovative, forward thinking approach to how we can adapt our way of life through the redesign of transport systems and cities, how we produce and distribute food, and how we deliver our health services will help to both achieve these climate targets while also producing huge positive health and economic outcomes. By focusing investment in a healthier and cleaner future we can produce new jobs, cleaner air, better diets, more active societies, and more energy efficient homes. 

The letter closes with the statement, “These climate actions must be taken now to protect the planet, and the health, wellbeing, and prosperity of all people alive today and for generations to come.”

Individual, local, national and international action is needed—but the greatest impact will be felt when the world’s leaders come together, work together and join together in a shared ambition and commitment to change the course of climate change.

Elaine Mulcahy is the interim director of the UK Health Alliance.

Competing interests: none declared.