The intimate relationship between health and the environment is becoming increasingly apparent and fragile as the climate crisis progresses. Globally, the effects of climate change are projected to induce at minimum an additional 250,000 deaths annually between 2030 and 2050.
As COP26 gets underway, we also know that climate-induced anxiety is on the rise. Understanding of and engagement with the health-environment intersection needs to urgently improve and we hope it will be a big part of discussions at the climate talks in Glasgow.
The intersection between health and the environment
National and international inequalities mean that the poorest populations are most affected by the environmental determinants of health. For example, a lack of access to green space for lower socio-economic populations in the UK has been linked to worse physical and mental health outcomes. Yet the benefits of investing in these spaces are huge. Annually, London’s green spaces are estimated to save some £580m by contributing to better physical health, and £370m by contributing to better mental health.
Further afield, Africa experiences a disproportionately high share of the global disease burden, with approximately 23% of this burden attributed to unhealthy environments, such as poor water, sanitation, hygiene, and air pollution. However, the continent contributes very little to global greenhouse emissions, estimated to be 4%, demonstrating a stark injustice for this population.
NPC is currently developing a briefing for funders on the intersection of the environment and health as a part of the Environmental Funders Network’s (EFN) Healthy Planet, Healthy People webinar series. As a part of this work, funded by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), we surveyed health funders and found a lack of engagement with this intersection.
Health funders working in this space can have a meaningful impact on these issues. Yet, the intersection between health and the environment must be better recognised and understood to allow for informed and impactful change.
Funding the environment is a win-win
With COP26 taking place in the first week of November, our timely discussions at NPC Ignites 2021, our annual conference, focused on the health-environment intersection. Florence Miller, Director of EFN, laid out the complex web of connections between the environment and human health. Florence demonstrated that cause and effect flows both ways and that focusing on one aspect of the web would have far-reaching benefits for both health and the environment. For example, improving our diet through eating less meat improves our health and also reduces greenhouse gas emissions from our food system.
Despite this widespread potential, only 4% of UK philanthropic funding was attributed to global environmental issues. Florence remarked that this is a ‘tiny fraction … that is going towards the issues that essentially underpin not only our health and well-being, but our entire economy and … survival as a species’.
Funders, and COP26 delegates, need to recognise that the time to invest in environmental projects is now and that there will be positive implications for health in any area they choose to focus their funding.
The need for investment
Another speaker at our conference, Peninah Murage, co-Deputy Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health, emphasized that we need to think of planetary health and human health as one. Peninah also stressed that ‘beyond climate change there are other significant environmental changes, and their risk to human health are also significant’.
For example, biodiversity is declining at an exceptional rate and we are now operating outside of a ‘safe zone’ in terms of human health. Yet, the causal pathways between environmental boundaries, such as biodiversity and ocean acidification, and human health are poorly understood, due to a lack of research and consequential large data gaps in this intersection.
Peninah urged funders to focus on interdisciplinary research and to invest in evidence-based solutions so we can better understand and address this pertinent issue. Funders should look outside of the box to other areas where the environment is having an impact on health, such as soil and food scarcity or where air pollution is affecting mental health.
Greater knowledge and action are needed
The recent EFN and NPC survey of health funders identified that no respondents currently funded projects relating to heatwaves and only one third would consider doing so. Funding for air pollution projects was slightly better, yet just under half of the respondents said they would not fund these projects or did not have enough information to answer.
This is concerning as these environmental issues will affect vulnerable populations the most. Justin Johnson, Director of Climate at CIFF, brought to light some alarming figures at NPC Ignites. Globally, 93% of children are currently exposed to air pollution and one third of children experience dangerous heatwaves, risking their health and permanently altering their biological development.
Air pollution and heatwaves have an extreme, synergistic impact on our health and are linked with cardiovascular and respiratory disease, cancer and mental health issues. In 2020, heatwaves across the UK led to 2,556 excess deaths, with heatwaves set to double by 2050. Global premature deaths due to air pollution are also projected to double by 2050.
Evidently, there is a major gap in health funders’ knowledge regarding the direct impact of the climate crisis on human health. Urgent action is needed to improve awareness, which the upcoming EFN and NPC funder briefing paper will speak to.
The complexity of the relationship between health and the environment means there isn’t a one size fits all approach for funders. Instead, funders need to understand where they fit into the nexus and facilitate impact for both health and the environment.
However big or small, all stakeholders need to urgently understand and engage with the health-environment intersection. As COP26 kicks off, work in this area will ultimately save lives and our planet.