COP26 debrief: what does it mean for health?

In October the Academy launched a joint report with the Royal Society looking at the health impacts of initiatives to tackle climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. As co-Chair of the group that prepared this report, Professor Sir Andy Haines FMedSci, reflects on his time at COP26 and pulls out the key messages that came out of the conference for health.

A united health community

It was gratifying to see the health community mobilised in unprecedented numbers compared to previous COP events, working together to raise the profile of health in the climate agenda.

Ahead of COP26 about 550 organisations – representing 46 million nurses, doctors and health professionals worldwide – signed an open letter to the 197 government leaders and national delegations, warning that the climate crisis is the single biggest health threat facing humanity and calling on world leaders to deliver effective climate action.

The Global Climate and Health Alliance were essential in coordinating meetings between health professionals and members of national delegations at the conference. These events helped to raise awareness of the health effects of climate change and the health benefits of climate action.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) had a ‘health pavilion’ which held 60 events and held a global conference on health and climate change which focussed on climate justice. The WHO also put together a COP26 special report which proposed 10 priority recommendations from the global health community to governments and policy makers, making the health case for urgent climate action.

I was pleased to present the Academy’s recent joint report on climate change and health at an official side event put on by the InterAcademy Partnership, where I gave many win-win examples of actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that would have positive near term benefits for health.

Overall: a mixed bag

The overall outcomes of COP26 were a mixed bag, with a major gap between the magnitude of the action required and the commitments made by many national governments. The goal of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial is barely alive, but every effort must be made to keep well under 2C.

There was an important focus on coal phase out and although the final wording was weakened to ‘phase down’, the direction of travel is clear. There was also a welcome commitment to methane reduction for the first time and 105 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, compared with 2020 levels.

An initiative of UK COP26 Presidency, the UNFCCC Climate Champions Team and others, was successful in securing commitments from 51 countries to develop sustainable resilient low carbon health systems, putting them on a pathway to net zero greenhouse gas emissions. Of these signatories 14 nations have specified a target date for achieving net zero emissions, ranging from 2030 to 2050.

Countries file Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) reflecting their commitments to deliver the goal of the Paris Agreement, limiting global temperature rise to well below 2C, and preferably to 1.5C. An analysis of the inclusion of health in these showed that the highest ranking countries were all low and middle income nations that have contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions and are particularly exposed to climate risks. All countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their current emissions targets to 2030, as expressed in their NDCs, by 2022, offering an important opportunity to strengthen the commitment to address health in the NDCs.

After six years of discussions the Paris Rulebook containing guidelines for how the Paris Agreement is delivered, was completed at COP26. This is an essential prerequisite for achieving the goals of the Agreement and for holding countries to account, including rigorous framework for countries to exchange carbon credits through the UNFCCC.

What’s needed next

Without a specific COP workstream dedicated to health – as there were for other sectors – health did not make it to the centre of the key negotiations carried out at the conference.

The health community must redouble efforts to work with decision makers in sectors responsible for large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions to get health benefits put at the heart of climate change discussions, debate, and action in the UK, and beyond.

As noted in the recommendations of our report, the UK Government has a key role in promoting a stronger focus on health within the international climate narrative, and to advocate for this to be maintained. By integrating the protection and promotion of human health in all actions to address climate change in the UK and demonstrating the potential health gains of the net-zero transition, the UK can take a global leadership role ahead of the climate negotiations at COP27 next year in Egypt.

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