While countries have begun to prioritize health in their efforts to protect people from the impact of climate change, only about a quarter of those recently surveyed by the World Health Organization have been able to fully implement their plans.
Over three quarters of countries surveyed have, however, developed or are currently developing national health and climate change plans or strategies, states the 2021 WHO Health and Climate Change global survey report released Monday at the COP 26 summit in Glasgow. However, 70% countries, up from 56% in 2019, cited insufficient finance to be the top stumbling block to fully implementing national health and climate change plans.
The report states that around 85% of countries now have a designated focal point responsible for health and climate change in their ministries of health, while in 54% of countries, the process for a stakeholder mechanism (such as a task force or committee) has been established. About two-thirds of surveyed countries have conducted a climate change and health vulnerability and adaptation assessment or are currently undertaking one, while virtually all (94%) countries have incorporated health considerations in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement.
“The new WHO survey highlights how many countries are left unsupported and unprepared to deal with the health impacts of climate change. We are here at COP 26 to urge the world to better support countries in need, and to ensure that together we do a better job of protecting people from the biggest threat to human health we face today,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
Countries’ inability to protect health from climate change is most harmful for their most disadvantaged groups, including ethnic minorities, poor communities, migrants and displaced people, older people and many women and children. “The health arguments for increased climate action are very clear. For example, almost 80% of deaths caused by air pollution could be avoided if current air pollution levels were reduced to the WHO Air Quality guidelines,” said Dr Neira.
Human resource constraints are the second biggest barrier, whilst about one third of countries identified a lack of inter-sectoral collaboration as a key barrier. About half of the countries report that the Covid-19 emergency has slowed progress on addressing climate change by diverting health personnel and resources, and continues to threaten national health authorities’ abilities to plan and prepare for climate-related health stresses and shocks.
The report also notes a potential missed opportunity to identify and optimize the health benefits of adaptation and mitigation efforts in other sectors, which could have fed into a clean, healthy recovery from Covid-19: structural and social determinants of health, such as education, equity, gender, urban planning, housing, energy and transportation systems was represented in fewer than half of the established multi-sectoral mechanisms.
“The challenge now is to remove the barriers that are preventing countries from finalizing and implementing plans,” said Tara Neville, Technical Officer at the WHO Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health and lead author of the survey report.
The health workforce is increasingly being informed and trained on the connection between climate change and health (in 42% countries some level of training is being conducted), but further efforts are needed to ensure capacity building covers a comprehensive set of relevant skills and is routinely integrated into health workforce development.
Only a small proportion of ministries of health in low-and-lower-middle-income countries (LLMICs) (28%) are currently receiving international funds to support climate change and health work. Access to international funds, including multilateral climate funds, needs to be substantially scaled up to reach the levels required to protect health from climate change.