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Ahead of global climate talks, what are the key issues for health?

Leading up to the global Conference of the Parties (COP28) negotiations on climate change in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December, many advocates are working hard to put the focus on meaningful outcomes for health and justice.

Croakey Health Media is encouraging stakeholders to join in using the hashtag, #HealthyCOP28, to help curate a collective platform around health and the COP.

Below we link readers into related publications, resources and calls to action, for the COP28 and Australian governments.


Melissa Sweet writes:

Global agencies have called for systematic action to protect pregnant women, babies and children from the “extreme health risks” they face from climate catastrophes.

The World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Population Fund have called on member states, partners, collaborators and stakeholders to do more to protect the health of women, newborns and children from climate change.

The effects of climate events on maternal and child health have been “neglected, underreported and underestimated,” they say.

A new publication, Protecting maternal, newborn and child health from the impacts of climate change, says very few countries’ climate change response plans mention maternal or child health, describing this as “a glaring omission and emblematic of the inadequate attention to the needs of women, newborns, and children in the climate change discourse”.

The needs of women, newborns and children should be integrated into climate mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction strategies, to address their unique needs, including access to essential sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health services, it says.

“Climate change poses an existential threat to all of us, but pregnant women, babies and children face some of the gravest consequences of all,” Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director General for Universal Health Coverage, Life Course at the WHO, said in a statement.

“Children’s futures need to be consciously protected, which means taking climate action now for the sake of their health and survival, while ensuring their unique needs are recognized in the climate response.”

The publication, released on 21 November, makes recommendations to:

  • Address the needs of women, newborns and children in the global climate response.
  • Frame climate change as a health and human rights issue with a human capital approach.
  • Institute robust monitoring frameworks.
  • Accelerate research and share information on the impact
  • of climate change and MNCH.
  • Strengthen resilient health systems sustainably.
  • Promote greater collaboration between sectors to jointly define long-term, sustainable policies that outline maternal, new born and child health targets in climate financing policy.

Unique vulnerabilities

The joint agencies’ statement said research shows that harm can begin even in the womb, leading to pregnancy-related complications, preterm birth, low birthweight and stillbirth. For children, consequences can last a lifetime, affecting the development of their bodies and brains as they grow.

“Action on climate change often ignores that children’s bodies and minds are uniquely vulnerable to pollution, deadly diseases and extreme weather,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for Programmes, Omar Abdi.

“The climate crisis is jeopardising every child’s fundamental right to health and well-being. It is our collective responsibility to listen and put children at the centre of urgent climate action, beginning at COP28. This is the moment to finally put children on the climate change agenda.”

The Call to Action was released alongside an advocacy brief by the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, which outlines specific recommendations for different stakeholders – including governments, global financing mechanisms, donors and foundations, private sector and civil society.

“Climate change is a major intergenerational injustice of our times. Safeguarding the health and rights of women, children, and adolescents is non-negotiable in the face of the climate crisis’’, said Helen Clark, PMNCH Board Chair and former Prime Minister of Aotearoa/ New Zealand.

“The urgency to integrate women, children and adolescent health needs into climate responses is not just a moral imperative, but an effective strategy with long-term benefits for resilient and healthy societies.”

Health priorities for COP

During the COP28 meetings, delegates will mark the first ever Day of Health, with many Australian climate health leaders expected to participate amid concerns the day will enable “healthwashing” by focusing on adaptation and healthcare resilience, and distracting away from mitigation and the imperative to phase out fossil fuels.

More 46 million health professionals have signed a letter addressed to the UAE COP presidency demanding that countries commit to “an accelerated, just and equitable phase-out of fossil fuels as the decisive path to health for all.”

The COP is being held as report after report warns that the world is on track for climate catastrophe, and as many communities already experience the impacts of heatwaves, flooding, fires and related health problems.

According to the Climate and Health Alliance COP 28 policy platform, key negotiations with important implications for health, will address:

  • Mitigation with calls for fossil fuel phase out
  • Finance to enable climate action
  • Operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund
  • Conclusion of the first ever Global Stocktake
  • Adoption of a Framework for the Global Goal on Adaptation.

The CAHA document says that historically, Australian governments have made inadequate efforts to meet international obligations under the Paris Agreement, with its Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC falling far short of global targets.

A recent paper from the Global Climate and Health Alliance, evaluating the ‘healthiness’ of 58 countries’ NDCs, rated Australia 0 out of 18 for a failure to mention health in any way.

“This demonstrates just how far we have to go in adopting a ‘health in all policies’ approach that recognises the benefits of action on climate and health,” says CAHA.

CAHA is calling for Australia to adopt a ‘Health in All Policies’ approach to climate action, imbed climate and health co-benefits into transport systems, to implement a just transition that includes co-design of climate and health policy with First Nations peoples, and to safeguard food security.

Paths forward

Meanwhile, The Lancet Pathfinder Commission has called for the formation of a coalition of like-minded organisations to support “ambitious, collective, and transformative action on climate and health”, to accelerate evidence-based action to reach net-zero emissions and limit hazardous levels of global heating.

Cities, nations, non-governmental organisations, businesses and their representative bodies, and funding agencies are invited to join the coalition, which is proposed in the Commission’s latest report, released on 20 November, Pathways to a healthy net-zero future.

The coalition would undertake monitoring, evaluating, and communication of the impacts of their actions on health and greenhouse gas emissions to foster mutual learning and tackle some of the key challenges outlined in the report, which include significant knowledge gaps.

The Pathfinder Commission was established to assess the evidence on the health co-benefits of greenhouse gas mitigation policies, and to synthesise evidence on the development and implementation of actions across a range of sectors, to improve and sustain health while accelerating progress towards a net-zero future.

“The journey towards net zero requires transformation of all major sectoral systems, radically changing the ways business and the public sector operate and interact with the natural environment to steer societies towards a healthy, equitable, and sustainable net-zero carbon development pathway,” says the report.

“This transformation will require reducing the material demand for products and services responsible for large greenhouse gas emissions in countries with high per-capita emissions, as well as exploiting technological solutions that support efficient and equitable use of energy and resources.

“Increasingly, the aim should be to fund and implement actions for net-zero resilience that enable societies to withstand climate shocks while functioning at much lower environmental footprints than those of industrialised countries and emerging economies.”

The report says that emphasising the benefits of action, in addition to the risks to humanity posed by inaction, provides an alternative narrative to climate fatalism, fuelled by the perception that change is too difficult and too costly to succeed. This approach can help engage more diverse audiences and build support for change.

“A predominantly negative discourse on climate change might accentuate polarisation and impede progress, whereas a focus on the opportunities for transformative change to an economy that supports health and equity within planetary boundaries can provide hope and a compelling vision of an inclusive and sustainable future.”

The report notes that a comprehensive review of the equity implications of climate mitigation policies is currently underway for the WHO World Report on Social Determinants of Health Equity, entitled Climate Change and Heath Equity.


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