Truly health-centered economic policy would support a transition away from fossil fuels including gas to renewable energy and invest in projects and technologies that supported the natural environment, taking the opportunity presented by the coronavirus pandemic to reshape Australia as a sustainable, resilient and just society, peak medical groups for the environment have urged.
On the eve of Australia’s 2020 budget, which has been shaped by and will focus on national recovery from the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, Doctors for the Environment Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance have called for climate policy to be front and centre of the government’s plans.
The groups have made a number of specific recommendations for spending that would help Australia confront the twin global health emergencies of COVID-19 and climate change.
“As we continue efforts to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we must ensure that we also have a whole-of-government approach towards addressing climate change, which also has potentially catastrophic health impacts,” DEA says.
DEA, which represents several specialist medical colleges as well as the AMA, has called for any economic stimulus to also target the climate crisis, with efficiencies that not only create jobs but also aim to reduce emissions.
While it welcomes a foreshadowed commitment to social housing, DEA says this must be matched by mandated efficiency measures and rebates for solar power, heat pumps and adequate green space, with retrofits supported for older dwellings and similar incentives and requirements for commercial sites.
It supports independent MP Helen Haines’ Local Power Plan for renewable energy; investment in electrified public transport, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure; and assistance for emissions reduction, soil erosion mitigation and water resource management in the agricultural sector as well as funding for regenerative farming research.
Doctors for the Environment also urges the government to reconsider its emphasis on a so-called gas-led recovery, instead pointing to the Australian Energy Market Operator’s Integrated System Plan as an established multi-decade blueprint to transition away from dependence on coal.
Prioritising gas over the ISP would have implications for the climate, Australia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement, and may result in stranded assets longer term, DEA says.
There are health dividends in promoting all of these policies: cleaner air, soil and water; jobs and social cohesion with less mental ill-health; a safer climate; improved adaptation and resilience to heat stress and other effects of climate change.
A health-centered economic approach is vital to public health and wellbeing and one which health professionals are calling for.”
DEA wrote a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in August making the case for a climate-focused COVID-19 #HealthyRecovery plan. You can read it here
‘A healthy, regenerative and just society and economy’
The Climate and Health Alliance says the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted not only the inextricable links between human and environmental health, but also the potential for swift and drastic action by Australian governments and citizens.
“Environmental degradation, in particular land-clearing, has been linked to the rise of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19. Rising temperatures further accelerate the rise of infectious diseases,” CAHA says.
“To avoid fall-outs from health and environmental disasters, federal and state governments must integrate public health and climate preparedness. Doing so will also safeguard long-term economic recovery.”
CAHA has made a raft of recommendations in its budget submission around themes including community capacity-building, particularly in renewable energy and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; a low or zero-carbon, sustainable and climate resilient health sector (critically, one that is able to effectively respond to new infectious diseases and pandemics); emergency and disaster preparedness; ecosystems; energy efficiency, housing and transport.
Some of their headline recommendations include:
- Increased funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and community services and capacity building in culture, conservation and science including Indigenous fire and natural resource management
- National agency for sustainability in the health care sector and mandatory standards for procurement, facility design and management prioritising sustainable, low-emissions design and operation, with investment in solar and battery technology for every hospital and health service across Australia
- Expansion of national medical supply manufacturing, including PPE, with an emphasis on sterilising and reuse and a national program targeting medical plastics and recycling, as well as local vaccine research, development and production
- Investment in telehealth to improve access and reduce travel and emissions
- National education campaign around climate risks and establishment of an education and training network for health professionals (from undergraduate level through to CPD) on recognising, preparing and responding to the health impacts of climate change
On housing and transport it echoes many of the recommendations of DEA, but also calls for the National Construction Code to be amended to incorporate health protection and climate resilience measures against temperature extremes and disasters, and funding for for urban planning to focus on heat abatement.
“Australia’s response [to COVID-19] by its government and people has shown the potential for drastic change and swift reactions,” CAHA says.
“As we now look to rebuild our economy, we must make use of the opportunity to reshape our society for a sustainable, resilient and healthy future.”