Planetary Health: An Essential Part of Human Health

Published on 21st November 2017

Never before has humanity been mobile, connected, socially aware, or had the tools to affect change like we do right now.  This connectivity has helped people around the world address some big, interlinked challenges. For example, life expectancy has increased more than 20 years in the past half century. Death rates in children under five have decreased. And the total number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 700 million people over the past 30 years.

But we’ve neglected other connections that allowed us to advance to this point—connections that were instinctual to our ancestors. We must re-establish the idea that the health of humankind is intricately connected to the health of the overall environment and with other living beings. It seems like such a basic, fundamental idea, but one we seem to have forgotten.

Our use and abuse of natural resources has had severely negative impacts for people throughout the world. For example, pollution from fires and the combustion of fossil and solid fuels is resulting in respiratory diseases and millions of deaths—especially children.

Overfishing and the warming and acidification of water bodies are disrupting coral reefs and fish supplies—resulting in food insecurity, disease and poverty. Extreme weather events related to climate change, as we’ve recently seen in all parts of the world, are also a significant cause of illness and death.

Carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity are reducing the nutritional content of crops such as wheat, rice, barley and soy. This puts hundreds of millions of people—especially those living in Africa and South Asia—at risk for vitamin deficiencies.

If we’re to correct the course we’re currently on, we need a broader view of health; one that directly connects human and animal health with the health of the planet. If we take this view, we can improve the lives of individuals, families and communities around the world, today and in the future.

For the idea of planetary health to be truly effective, however, we need everyone to do their part. We need researchers to develop further evidence on the health effects of environmental change. We need health professionals to educate communities about those changes and advocate for policies that integrate health care and environmental care at the primary level. We need multilateral institutions such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to help in a variety of ways.

This includes monitoring planetary health and advocating for reforms of tax, subsidy and trade policies that support planetary health. We need national governments to use evidence-based policies to promote human health and prosperity while, at the same time, preserving the environment.

We need the business community to demonstrate leadership by doing a better job with respect to sustainability and promoting reform throughout the global economy. And, of course, we need civil society organizations to develop broad-based public movements for social change.

UN Climate Change is working on the issue of planetary health in several ways, including our Momentum for Change initiative. Momentum for Change, which is hosting today’s event, shines a light on some of the most innovative, scalable and practical examples of what people across the globe are doing to combat climate change.

We call these examples Lighthouse Activities, and they’re a big part of our wider efforts to mobilize action and ambition, as national governments work toward implementing the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The simple fact is this: we are only as healthy as our planet. By working together to reconnect what was once instinctual to our ancestors, to truly understand our role in the delicate, interwoven web of life, we have the potential to not only build a healthier planet…but a planet that is greener and cleaner for us all.

By Patricia Espinosa,

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary.


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