Investing in a healthy environment can save millions of lives
On World Health Day, we could reflect upon thousands of sayings related to health. Perhaps, however, the one that best defines how central well-being is to human happiness and prosperity was coined over 2,000 years ago by the Roman poet Virgil, when he said, “The greatest wealth is health.”
One would hope that two millennia would be long enough for such simple wisdom to sink in—and we have made progress in eradicating diseases and reducing the poverty that damages our ability to live long, happy and productive lives. Yet human society is still managing to invent new ways to harm itself.
High on the culprit list are environmental health risks, such as pollution, chemical exposure and climate change—the majority of which are unintended consequences of the way the world has developed. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012, nearly 1 in 4 of total global deaths. The sad fact is that many, if not all, of these deaths could have been avoided through better environmental management.
This is where the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) come in. The 2030 Agenda has set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim to create a better future for people and planet. The environment cuts across virtually all of the goals, as it should: the Earth’s natural resources support much of human existence—providing agricultural land and fisheries, livelihoods, air, water, energy and so much more. But nowhere is the importance of a well-managed environment as clear as in human health—which is simultaneously a standalone goal (number 3), a key factor in other goals such as those on education, economy and societies, and a way of measuring how sustainable development is progressing.
The 2030 Agenda has come in the nick of time. As a result of the damage humanity’s rapid development has done to the environment, our planet is straining to sustain human life in good health. Take the example of indoor and outdoor air pollution, the single biggest environmental killer. WHO figures show 8.2 million people died in 2012 from air pollution, which is due in no small measure to a fossil-fuel based economy that pumps harmful materials into the air.
A century or so ago, we had the excuse of ignorance and a lack of alternative technologies. Today, we do not. We have examples of sustainable urban transport systems across the globe. We have access to cleaner fuels and more-efficient vehicles. We have more renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies. We can produce clean cookstoves to slash the millions of deaths from indoor air pollution.
Happily, many of these initiatives are spreading, most notably renewables. Last year, for the first time, renewables accounted for a majority of new electricity-generating capacity added around the world, at an investment of $286 billion, according to recent research by UNEP, Bloomberg and the Frankfurt School. With further expansion of renewable energy, we can provide universal access to clean energy without compromising human health.
There are similar challenges and opportunities in chemicals, which are an integral part of today’s world. Global chemical output was valued at $171 billion in the 1970s, and grew to $4.12 trillion by 2010. But the gains that chemicals provide must not come at the expense of human health and the environment.
Take lead, for example. Childhood lead poisoning can have lifelong health impacts. According to the WHO, childhood lead exposure contributes to about 600,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year. In addition to the obvious suffering this causes, the economic cost due to lower IQ points translates to over $900 billion each year. We are tackling this challenge. In 2002, lead was used in fuels in 82 countries. Today, with UNEP and its partners’ support, only three countries still have leaded fuels. Lead in paint is still a problem—which is why UNEP and WHO, leading the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, are working across the globe to replicate the success with fuel. In the Philippines, for example, legislation now prohibits the use, manufacture, import, export and sale of paints with total lead content above 90 ppm.
This is just one strand of the many efforts to ensure chemicals are used safely for the benefit of humanity. Under the Montreal Protocol, for example, the world phased out chemicals that were depleting the ozone layer. We are now on track for ozone layer recovery, and the benefits are astonishing: data released by the US Environmental Protection Agency showed that actions under the Montreal Protocol will prevent 283 million cases of skin cancer up to 2100. Extrapolated across the globe, this means billions of cases, and millions of lives saved.
So, we have reason to be optimistic about the world’s ability to face down major threats to our health. But challenges also emerge from environmental issues that are not so obvious—climate change amongst them. Evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that climate change has altered the distribution of some infectious diseases, altered the seasonal distribution of some allergenic pollen species, and increased heatwave-related deaths.
This is why the Paris Agreement on climate change is also so important for human health. If we do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, extreme weather events will claim lives, while changing weather patterns will increasingly affect agricultural production. In Africa alone, climate change could reduce crop yields by up to 20 per cent by 2050 as the population nearly doubles. The health consequences of such a scenario are obvious.
There are so many other areas we could explore: how human health is supported by biodiversity and ecosystem services; growing plastic contamination in the oceans and food chain; the ever-increasing amounts of e-waste that expose workers to hazardous substances. But it is surely already clear that how we manage and use the planet’s resources has a big impact on our health.
UNEP, WHO and many other committed organizations, governments and individuals have come a long way in addressing the links between health and environment. With implementation of the 2030 Agenda about to hit full swing, we have a golden opportunity to do even more. Should we waste it, both our health and wealth will suffer.