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Australia still dragging the chain on climate and health

Melissa Sweet writes:

A global scorecard that rates how countries are performing on climate and health has singled out Australia as a world-leading laggard.

Together with a handful of other countries, Australia received a rating of zero out of a potential score of 18 for its performance on climate and health.

Australia’s poor performance was mentioned at the launch of the Global Climate and Health Alliance scorecard, which follows a similarly dismal rating in the previous such scorecard, as Croakey reported in 2021.

The scorecard assesses the climate plans or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted by 58 governments between 1 October 2021 and 23 September 2022 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, as required by the Paris Agreement.

The NDCs were rated across six health categories: integrated governance, health impacts, health sector action, health co-benefits, economics and finance, and monitoring and implementation. The Albanese Government submitted an updated NDC in June last year.

Fiona Armstrong, founder of the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), said the findings showed just how far Australia had fallen behind other countries in the last decade when it comes to action to protect people’s health from climate change.

“As many other countries recognise the deep links between a changing climate and the health of populations, Australia is being left far behind as other countries adopt an integrated approach to climate change,” she said.

Australia also fares poorly in the report’s climate ambition score with the national emissions target still in line with 3°C of warming and therefore inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under the Paris Agreement.

 

Budget gaps and silences

The scorecard’s release comes amid concerns about the Albanese Government’s failure to prioritise climate and health action in its recent budget.

While the Treasurer’s omission of the words ‘climate change’ from his budget speech has been widely noted, less attention has been paid to the lack of climate-related announcements in the health portfolio.

You would not guess from looking at the health budget statements that we are in a climate and health emergency, with the United Nations warning that policies currently in place point to a catastrophic 2.8°C temperature rise by the end of the century.

Health leaders had hoped the budget would bring news of a significant boost in funding for the National Health and Sustainability and Climate Unit, as well as funds for implementation of the long-awaited National Health and Climate Strategy.

The Climate and Health Alliance argued in its pre-budget submission that the baseline budget for the National Health and Sustainability and Climate Unit be increased to $1 million per annum from 1 July 2023, and for $3 million per annum for implementation of the National Health and Climate Strategy.

“Unfortunately, both these items were not accounted for in this year’s budget, and without it, it remains unclear how the Unit and Strategy can deliver much needed timely action on climate and health,” said CAHA’s budget analysis.

It’s worth noting that these are miniscule amounts by comparison with the Government’s continued support for the fossil fuels industry – perhaps explaining why it seems to be so difficult for Health Ministers to speak up loudly on climate change.

Concerns raised

Dr Kate Wylie, a GP and spokesperson for Doctors for the Environment Australia, told Croakey that the lack of climate and health initiatives in the federal budget was “highly concerning”.

“The budget signals to the population what the priorities of government are and what they think are the most important issues we face,” she said. “That this budget does not mention climate change and health shows that this is a low priority for them, that they don’t see it as important, and this needs to change.

“Climate change is the greatest health issue facing humanity and we must address this now in order to protect the health of the Australian people.”

Roland Sapsford, CEO of CAHA, told Croakey that the next year would be critical, providing a “litmus test” on the Government’s stated commitment to climate health action.

He acknowledged the complexity of related parallel policy processes – including work on the wellbeing framework, National Climate Risk Assessment, and the Australian Centre for Disease Control – and stressed the need for joined up responses.

While the Government had pledged $91.1 million over two years for the Australian Centre for Disease Control, “ongoing vigilance and engagement” would be required to ensure climate and health was central to its work, he said.

The CAHA budget analysis says crucial national health strategies, including the National Preventive Health Strategy and the National Injury Prevention Strategy, remain unfunded, despite their consideration of the impacts of climate on high disease burden conditions and actions to address it.

“Without funding for these strategies, our health system remains unprepared for the increasing burden of disease associated with climate change,” it says.

The CAHA analysis also noted several positive developments in the budget, including $364.6 million over three years to deliver constitutional reform for the establishment of a Voice to Parliament for First Nations peoples.

“We welcome this funding commitment and strongly support moves towards centering First Nations voices, culture and knowledge in the business of government. The Voice to Parliament will enhance Australia’s ability to respond to climate and health issues, and is a crucial step towards healing.”

Global perspectives

The Global Climate and Health Alliance scorecard rated Burundi – one of the world’s poorest countries – the highest out of 58 countries for its plans to integrate health measures into its climate mitigation plan. It scored 17 out of 18.

Low- and middle-income countries were far more likely to include health goals in their climate commitments, with Côte d’Ivoire receiving 15 points, closely followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominica, State of Palestine, and Venezuela (all with 14 points).

“Overall, the Healthy NDC Scorecard demonstrates a trend of low- and middle-income countries showing greater ambition for protecting their citizens’ health from the worst impacts of climate change, while identifying additional wins through health co-benefits of climate action”, said Jess Beagley, Policy Lead at the Alliance.

Dr Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the Alliance, said that although COP28 is being marketed as the ‘Health COP’, “the Healthy NDC Scorecard scores make it clear that virtually none of the countries most culpable for climate warming appear to be clearly focussed on protecting the health of their citizens, or people around the world, when making climate commitments”.

During 2023 the UNFCCC is assessing governments’ collective progress toward meeting climate change targets set out when 196 countries adopted the 2015 Paris Agreement, in a process referred to as the ‘Global Stocktake’.

Miller urged all countries to send their health ministers to COP28 to send a clear message that people’s health must be central to the climate negotiations.

“The protection of people’s health and well-being around the world must drive decision making in the COP28 negotiation halls across all the areas of negotiation, from adaptation, to agriculture and nutrition, to finance, and of course to mitigation”, she said

“COP28’s proposed focus on health must also drive commitments to a full phase-out of fossil fuels, in line with the science. As long as humanity continues burning fossil fuels, we will continue compromising the health of everyone on earth.”

Government responses

Croakey approached Health Minister Mark Butler’s office for comment and was referred to the office of Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ged Kearney, as the Minister with carriage for climate and health.

The Minister’s office provided the following response:

“The health impacts of climate change are real and significant – from floods, fires, droughts and heatwaves, there are very real threats to the health and wellbeing of all Australians.

Our Government took a commitment to the election that we would treat the health impacts of climate change as a priority in the health portfolio – and that’s exactly what we’ve done in Government.

I’m proud that we established a dedicated National Health Sustainability and Climate Unit and have already started working on the first National Health and Climate Strategy. Through this work I’ve already heard a breadth of perspectives from experts and advocates across the country and look forward to continuing those conversations.”

The response said a consultation process on the National Health and Climate Strategy had begun, with a number of roundtables facilitated by Assistant Minister Kearney across the country, and a consultation paper to be released publicly in coming weeks “to provide further opportunity for experts and the public to contribute to its development”.

As well, the Department of Health and Aged Care was working closely with Department of Climate Change and Energy, and the Department of Environment and Water to ensure coordination across Government efforts to address the causes and impacts of climate change.

The responses did not specifically address Croakey’s questions about when funding would be announced for the National Health and Climate Strategy or for resourcing the National Health Sustainability and Climate Unit, whether the Health Minister is pressing for health to be included in Australia’s NDC, and whether an Australian Health Minister will attend the COP28.

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