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A dress rehearsal for disruption: Why Covid-19 has been a sustainability wake-up call

As wildfires rage on multiple continents, and with COP26 on the horizon, will leaders finally realise that the climate crisis is a health crisis?

“Some commentators have described the pandemic as a really horrible dress rehearsal for the disruption we could face in a future warming world,” says Tanya Steele, CEO of the environmental charity WWF UK. “It’s a landmark moment.”

Could this landmark moment be the point where policymakers recognise the climate emergency as a public health emergency?

Disastrous losses in biodiversity and the worst impacts of climate change have been going on for years, but for many people it has taken a pandemic to see how closely their actions are connected to the health of the planet. Wildfires in Europe and the US, for instance, have shown a clear link between planetary health and public health.

We need to count the cost of profit over planet

Economic growth is still the main motivation of most countries — not longer-term policies that protect health. But where there is profit, there is also cost, says Peter Daszak, CEO of US non-governmental organisation EcoHealth Alliance. “If you include that [cost] in the equation for land-use decisions, for instance, suddenly you get a shift,” he says. “You start to see local governments in areas of high biodiversity recognising that they are going to pay a high price for a new palm oil development in a remote area.”

Human populations — particularly those who are poor and vulnerable — stand to suffer too. According to modelling from the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. The causes of these deaths, the WHO predicts, will range from heat-related mortality in elderly people and mortality associated with coastal flooding, to undernutrition and increased transmission of dengue and malaria.

“Global commitments and actions are desperately needed to safeguard the planet, but they are also needed to reduce the impact of climate change on human health,” said Professor Alan Dangour, Director for the Centre on Climate Change & Planetary Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, at a recent UN Climate Action Roundtable.

“Climate change is a human health emergency that must be at the top of the global policy agenda,” he said. “It is already having devastating effects on people and communities around the world. Policies that seek to tackle climate change must reach across to secure the health of people.”

Make it worth their while, or we all lose

The problem, of course, is that the economic pain of pulling back from development is not shared equally. Developing economies where the natural world is often most threatened by economic drivers are least well-placed to cope. Overcoming this inequality requires a global response.

The answer? It could lie in incentivising businesses and governments to understand and incorporate nature-related risks and opportunities into their decision making. The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), which was initiated with input from organisations such as Reckitt, WWF and UNDP, was established to give financial institutions and companies a complete picture of their nature-related financial risks.

In 2023, after three years working with 74 member organisations, the TNFD will deliver a framework to support a shift in global financial flows away from nature-negative outcomes towards nature-positive ones. In a letter announcing the TNFD’s launch in June 2021, co-chairs David Craig and Elizabeth Maruma Mrema wrote: “We believe that better information will empower corporates and financial institutions to channel investments to more sustainable opportunities and business models. This in turn has the potential to turn the tide of nature loss worldwide.”

Have pandemic restrictions shown us what is possible?

Recent healthcare innovations — from work to improve trust in vaccines to investments in vaccine and drug supply chains, manufacturing and last-mile distribution — show how our leaders can make a fundamental, lasting difference, says Hala Audi, who recently finished a secondment as CEO of the Trinity Challenge. They also serve as an example of the speed and scale with which impactful change is possible when global leaders rally around a cause.

It is this same urgency leaders must now bring to solving climate change. “That is a really important lesson for people in government who are looking at the investment,” says Audi. “There has to be a way to invest to alleviate the climate crisis today, but in a way that leaves long-term benefits.”

From governments and business leaders to consumers, there is growing pressure on all to take urgent and lasting action. “[Consumers today] expect [brands] to play a bigger role to help society, communities, environments in dire need of support, help, and rebuilding,” says Fabrice Beaulieu, EVP Group Marketing Excellence at hygiene, health and nutrition company Reckitt. “Brands which do not rise to the challenge are at serious risk of becoming irrelevant.”

Leaders can create long-lasting change

“History will judge us for the actions we take today to protect our world and our health from climate change,” said Xavier Becerra, secretary for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Becerra’s statement comes off the back of the HHS’s announcement that it will this year establish the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) — the first office of its kind at a national level to address climate change and health equity — to “protect vulnerable communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and climate-driven disasters … at the expense of public health”.

“The consequences for our inaction are real and worsening,” said Becerra. “We’ve always known that health is at the centre of climate change, and now we’re going to double-down on a necessity: fighting climate change in order to help protect public health in our communities.”

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