Health will be centre stage at the upcoming 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, bringing plenty of opportunities for Croakey readers to engage with these critical global discussions.
The conference will put pressure on governments and other stakeholders to ensure that climate action, sustainability and health are at the centre of the world’s recovery from COVID-19, write Remy Shergill and Fiona Armstrong, from CAHA.
Remy Shergill and Fiona Armstrong write:
For those working in the climate change space, COP is a highly anticipated (and sometimes dreaded) international event upon which we’ve pinned a few of our hopes and dreams.
The annual climate conference is attended by tens of thousands of people around the world, who are there because they care about mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis (well, most of them anyway).
However, it is also full of jargon, numbers, legalese and chaotic global politics. What are the goals of the conference, and do they pay attention to the health impacts of climate change at this highest level?
What is COP26?
At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP26, the world will gather in Glasgow to determine how to work collectively to mitigate climate change, and adapt to its consequences. COP stands for Conference of the Parties and this is the 26th time they are coming together – hence COP26.
COP26 has the overarching goal of putting Earth on a path to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming.
Every country will be asked to present their plans to cut emissions by 2030 and beyond. These plans are expected to be more ambitious than those already pledged in previous years, and consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement: enough to keep global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius – and aiming for 1.5 degrees Celsius – above pre-industrial levels.
While meeting this target is the main goal, a few others have been highlighted. COP26 President Alok Sharma has said he wants to “consign coal to history”. There is also pressure on rich countries to fulfil their 2015 pledge to provide at least $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer nations develop without fossil fuels and become more climate-resilient.
For the first time ever, health has been chosen as a priority area for COP26. To address this priority, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UK COP26 Presidency, and international NGO Health Care Without Harm, have established the COP26 Health Programme.
The programme will focus on the health effects of climate, and highlight solutions to:
- Build climate-resilient health systems
- Develop low carbon, sustainable health systems
- Fund health adaptation research
- Include health in their plan to cut emissions (called a Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC)
- Empower health professionals to advocate for stronger ambition on climate change.
The inclusion of health in COP26 is the result of years of lobbying by successive international health delegations calling for health to be made central in the global climate talks.
Director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance Jeni Miller said: “Health has always been nominally on the agenda, but it hasn’t always been visible.”
Making health a priority area for the UK COP26 presidency shows the health community leading by example and demonstrating that health has a stake in all climate decisions, Miller says.
The health highlight at COP26 will be the ninth Global Conference on Health & Climate Change on Saturday 6 November.
The overarching theme is ‘A Healthy and Green Recovery’ from the pandemic, first outlined in the WHO Manifesto from May 2020, calling for climate action, sustainability and health to be the centre of the world’s recovery from COVID-19.
The hybrid event is free to attend online. For those in Australia, be aware of the brutal time zone difference (8pm- 4.30am AEDT).
A ‘Healthy Climate Prescription’ Letter is a tool to demonstrate the global unity of health professionals on climate change to decision-makers at COP26.
It is an open letter to all heads of state from the global health community, calling for urgent climate action to protect health at COP26. At the time of writing, it’s been signed by more than 450 health organisations, representing around 50 million health professionals worldwide.
The Australian Medical Association, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and 47 other organisations from Australia have joined this international call.
The letter calls for six actions to address climate, health, inequity and the pandemic recovery. It states:
The actions called for in this letter – which are necessary although not sufficient to fully address the climate and health crises – will go a long way toward protecting people worldwide.
We urge our leaders to implement them, and we call on decision makers at COP26 to act now, and to act decisively.”
The letter will be formally handed over during COP26, and sent to all heads of state. Until the handover, any health professional or health organisation is able to join the call.
How does this apply to Australia?
Australia is an infamous blocker of progress at the climate conferences. We are repeated recipients of the “Fossil of the Day” award by the International Climate Action Network, given to countries who are “doing the most to achieve the least” for progress on climate change.
This year, the UK COP26 Presidency is trying to get Australia to take action via participation in the COP26 Health Programme.
On 27 September, seven of the eight Australian state and territory governments were represented at a virtual climate-health roundtable, hosted by the UK COP26 Presidency, World Health Organization and Health Care Without Harm.
Attended by Health Ministers from SA, NT, and Fiji, Chief and Deputy Chief Health Officers, Departmental Secretaries, and other high level representatives from other jurisdictions, the Roundtable represented the highest level climate and health roundtable yet held with Australia health ministries. The Federal Government declined to attend, and the Tasmanian Government was also not represented.
Roundtable attendees are now being asked to make commitments to the COP26 Health Programme by making a commitment to two climate-health pathways: climate adaptation and resilience measures, and low carbon and sustainable healthcare.
With some strong examples of action across the jurisdictions (for example, Queensland’s Human Health and Wellbeing Climate Adaptation Plan, and low carbon healthcare initiatives in ACT and Victoria and WA), there is a strong chance Australia’s states and territories could be catching global attention at COP26 – if they sign up soon.
Governments who have made commitments in the COP26 Health Programme will be announced in Glasgow on 9 November.
Brush up on your knowledge
If you want to know more about COP, there are endless resources to help you. We recommend the #Care4Climate webinars by the Global Climate and Health Alliance. Topics:
- COP 101: What is COP26 and why does it matter for health?
- How to talk about health and climate change
- Health and climate change as a legal and economic issue
- Advocacy skills for climate action
- Engaging in your country’s NDC process.
Attend some events
As well as attending the Global Climate and Health Conference on 6 November, there are other online official events you can attend. Some with a health focus include:
- An inclusive planet: Inclusion, mental health and climate change on 5 Nov
- Calling all young people to be agents of change in food systems transformation on 7 Nov
- Where the streets have no air: South-south experiences on citizen air quality on 10 Nov
- Disability, resilience and inclusion in our cities on 11 Nov.
Whatever your interest (Indigenous knowledge, gender equality, youth engagement, transport, technology, media), there’s an event for it.
Outside of the official COP26 Health Programme, international NGO groups are gathering on 7 November for The People’s Public Health Hearing.
The hearing “seeks to bear witness to the public health impacts of extractive industries, create a space that connects to people’s struggles and set out a vision for intersectional, transformative climate justice”.
Testimonies from frontline communities will focus on the health impacts of the fossil fuel industry, and also highlight stories of hope and resistance. Register here.
Follow on Twitter
As always, there will be plenty of conversation on Twitter. Follow the hashtag #HealthyCOP26, and the accounts Croakey News, the Climate and Health Alliance and the Global Climate and Health Alliance to stay across health commentary on COP26. Croakey also has compiled this Twitter list of climate and health leaders.
Remy Shergill is campaigns and communications officer at CAHA. Fiona Armstrong is executive director at CAHA.
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