Five Ways the Health Sector Can Help Combat Climate Change

The health sector can make a major contribution to addressing climate change. Photo: ADB
The health sector can make a major contribution to addressing climate change. Photo: ADB

By Patrick Osewe, Dinesh Arora

The health sector is both a first responder to climate change and a major contributor to the problem. It should take a leading role in the far-reaching solutions needed to address the issue.

Climate change has emerged as a central health issue. And while climate-health linkages are multiple, complex, and still being studied, swift and synergistic actions that address the climate-health nexus are urgently needed.

 The health sector, often the first responder to climate-related crises, is also a major contributor to climate change. Healthcare's climate footprint accounts for approximately 5.3% of net global emissions—equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of 514 coal-fired power plants. Put another way, if the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet.

Climate change caused by human action has led to increasingly severe, and in some cases, irreversible damage to the planet. It is also amplifying existing health threats and fueling new ones—with the health implications of an escalating climate crisis wielding the potential to dwarf those of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods, wildfires and drought, as well as air pollution expose millions to heat-related and respiratory diseases, food and water insecurity, and increased stomach and intestinal illnesses. Climate-fueled threats can also disrupt and delay access to medical care or leave populations vulnerable to forced displacement.

For example, the devastating flash floods in Pakistan in 2022 affected more than 30 million people and left almost 10 million children in need of immediate, lifesaving support, and at risk of waterborne diseases and malnutrition.

Furthermore, climate-related health risks do not affect everyone equally. While the worsening impacts of climate change are threatening health and survival for growing numbers of people worldwide, they disproportionately hurt many of the poorest countries—and especially the most vulnerable people—including women, children, the elderly, agricultural workers, migrants, and the urban poor. 

 Given the increasing pressure of climate change on population health, health systems in both urban and rural settings must prepare for and build resilience to the impacts of extreme weather on health infrastructure. The health sector must also reduce its contribution to the problem through adoption of climate mitigation strategies. 

Momentum has grown among governments, international agencies, and non-state actors to align health sector development with the ambition of the Paris Agreement. Building on this momentum, ADB and the Government of India, under its G20 Presidency, are launching the Climate and Health Initiative.

The health sector, often the first responder to climate-related crises, is also a major contributor to climate change.

This far-reaching, ambitious initiative calls for the following urgent actions:

  • Prioritize climate-resilient health development:  The health sector must prepare its systems, infrastructure, and the communities it serves to build resilience to a changing climate, including the capacity to withstand extreme weather events, deal with rising sea levels, respond to the shifting burden of disease, and deliver essential services to the most vulnerable populations.
  • Build sustainable and low-carbon health systems that deliver high-quality healthcare: The health sector must bring its facilities and operations into alignment with the ambition of the Paris Agreement by implementing low-carbon or zero emissions energy, building, transport, waste, and climate-smart procurement policies and models of care. 
  • Decarbonize the healthcare supply chain: Healthcare’s manufacturing base and supply chain must transition to low-carbon, prioritizing the producing energy efficient, low-carbon medical products and services.
  • Mobilize finance for resilient, low-carbon, sustainable health systems:  Health development assistance, climate finance mechanisms, national health budgets and private investment must integrate the development of climate-resilient, low-carbon health systems into their financing models.
  • Facilitate collaboration on human, animal, and climate health challenges:  Pursue ‘climate and health’ across sectors, disciplines, and communities. Doing so will build health systems that provide high-quality services for everyone, prevent and prepare for future health challenges including pandemics, and protect people, animals and natural systems from climate change.

As the window to take urgent climate action rapidly closes, national leaders must take a stand. The good news is that the pandemic has provided some invaluable insights into how to respond rapidly to a looming threat.  One critical lesson learned from the pandemic response was that the path to an equitable, more sustainable world rests on collective action.

We also learned that  the health sector can lead a comprehensive, multisector response to a pressing global challenge that cuts across all segments of society. Drawing on these and other lessons, immediate action is critical, not only for meeting the combined ambitions of the Paris Agreement, Universal Health Coverage, and the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, but also for safeguarding overall health and prosperity over the long term.