For those working on climate and development issues the IPCC’s Special Report Global Warming on 1.5°C  should be mandatory reading. That’s the proposition from the head of a leading global environmental organisation at this month’s Chatham House conference on climate change, and I would agree. The report has substantially shifted the conversation from whether we can avoid a global average 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial temperature to whether we should exceed 1.5°C and whether a 2°C planet is feasible.

Thanks to the report, this is no longer a conversation focussed only on vulnerable countries and existential threats to low-lying small island states, but instead it has drawn out a range of impacts. These include devastating differences in the impacts on biodiversity between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming: 18% of insect species would be lost at 2°C, as opposed to 6% lost at 1.5°C.

The IPCC has noted that the opportunities and benefits of limiting warming to 1.5°C are unexpectedly high. For example, the report highlights threats to human health from climate change – simply put, any warming at planetary level is bad for human health and creates costs for health systems. There is very high confidence that if average global warming can be limited to 1.5°C, then fewer heat-related deaths and illness will result. Limiting warming to 1.5°C may also reduce the proportion of world population exposed to climate-related water stress by 50%.

The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health, World Health Organization, researchers and others are increasingly supporting knowledge and policy development to address the climate and health nexus.

Aerial shot of a emissions coming from a factory in the US. (Nik Shuliahin)

Adaptation to climate change has been given significant attention throughout the report. But it is also a strong call to accelerated emissions reduction, which will require a massive increase in ambition from the current national climate plans or NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions), which currently add up to a “3 degree” world. Furthermore, the report is a reminder of the need for strong, ongoing collaborative international action. The consensus in the Chatham House meeting was that politics is the biggest obstacle to human behaviour change. Climate change is accelerating just at a time of emerging nationalism and weakening of the multilateral system.

An innovative aspect of this IPCC report is the development of illustrative pathways or system transitions consistent with 1.5°C, all of which are technically feasible. All show dramatic reductions in emissions needed, but pathways consistent with 1.5°C of warming focus attention on the need for cutting CO2 fast as well as other greenhouse gases (methane, nitrous oxides, aerosols, etc.). This points to the fact that there are some real choices for political leaders to make with respect to our future.

Low-carbon growth success stories

There is undoubtedly a positive story of growth in the low-carbon economy which the UK has feted in its Green Growth Week. It’s a story of fast exit from coal, innovation, investment and industrialisation, and scaling up of offshore wind and generation of jobs (already 400,000 green jobs in the UK’s low-carbon economy) in a matter of years. Government ambition for clean energy has led to an effective policy and regulatory framework, which in turn has raised business ambition to innovate and reduce costs. This has created a virtuous cycle in which further ambition is raised, subsidies are phased out and new opportunities are developed. The clean energy story is now being played out in transport and the shift to electric vehicles at global scale.

The Chatham House meeting highlighted how China’s centrally planned, hierarchical approach has enabled an impressive reduction of carbon intensity (5% annually) but others called on the need for stronger bottom-up movements to mobilise change and raise climate ambition.

Speakers at the Chatham House conference called for decision-makers to avoid complacency, and for greater policy coherence to progress climate goals. For example, onshore wind is the cheapest form of energy in the UK, but its development is effectively blocked by a narrow set of political interests. The UK is still building energy inefficient homes that will need to be retrofitted and the government is reluctant to address issues of diets with high carbon footprints.

Onshore windmills in the US (American Public Power Association)

UK Minister Claire Perry – speaking on the record – said she would not tell people that they should reduce their meat consumption when a range of nudges, incentives and other regulations could do much to adjust food systems towards lower emissions (with better health outcomes) in the manner in which energy systems have already changed. The IPCC’s report sets out the need to address lifestyle and consumption issues, which are politically difficult to address.

Financing the transition to a 2°C- or 1.5°C-consistent world is underway, with encouraging signs of attention by the capital markets that go beyond the growth of green bonds and integration of climate risk. There are some 42 carbon tax schemes in operation around the world and new guidance on climate-related risk disclosure emerged from the Bank of England this week in support. But many banks and pension funds are adjusting just a part of their portfolios and failing to shift the majority of their resources away from fossil fuels and high emitting sectors or factor in adaptation.

Discussions indicate that markets, innovation and technology are moving in the right direction, but the low-carbon transition needs to be “turbo charged” by policy and stronger regulation by governments. We see this emerging in a limited number of countries, but much more is needed.

Will the findings of the IPCC report and a good outcome from the forthcoming United Nations climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland (COP24) at the end of the year enable the actions to measure up to what climate change is demanding? We’ll have to wait to find out but hopefully not too much time.

At the recent World Health Summit in Berlin, there was a noticeable lack of discussion on the role of the natural environment in health. Co-benefits to human health from ecosystem protection, biodiversity, or urban greening were mentioned far less frequently than the impacts of the socioeconomic environment. This suggests that the global health community is not yet fully engaged with the field of planetary health.

Initiatives such as the Lancet Commission on Global Health and Climate Change, recent work by The Lancet on the synergies between universal health coverage, health security and health promotion calling for more coordination in the global health landscape, and the forthcoming EAT-Lancet Commission report on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food, all offer a good starting point to address fragmentation. However, they do not go far enough. Human and planetary health should not be viewed as two sides of the same (environmental) coin. Instead, global health and environmental science need to be on the same side if we are to find truly innovative solutions rather than simply manage trade-offs.

The term “planetary health” was first presented in a Rockefeller-Lancet Commission report. Its proponents and funders come from the fields of public and global health, but its conceptual underpinning comes from environmental science – the planetary boundaries and the Great Acceleration of earth system change.

Instinctively, we know that reducing carbon emissions, using fewer artificial fertilizers and protecting ocean marine stocks will in the long-term benefit the health of people as well as the planet. These benefits, however, are difficult to frame through the lens of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD), which encourages an emphasis on the value of the short term and quick wins of treatment over the longer-term investment needed for prevention.

By focussing on the symptoms in humans, we stop short of following the causal chain far enough back to find its true root, and miss an opportunity to heal the planet as well. A truly interdisciplinary approach would go deeper into understanding the problem and look more widely to develop solutions.

Aligning priorities

Planetary health can produce shared outputs that deliver the desired outcomes of both global health and environmental science. One way to bring the two fields fully together is to focus less on the conditions that top the GBD today, and instead project what the burden might be under a range of future climate change scenarios; this may particularly help to support those in the global health community who are acknowledging the risks from climate change and calling for action.

This will better enable global health practitioners, academics and policy-makers to visualise and value a long-term approach in which environmental factors are fully integrated. For this to occur, the blinkered call for only new diagnostics and drugs to tackle antimicrobial resistance must give way to a more holistic approach that integrates not only better stewardship, but also improved livestock and agriculture practices, transformed food systems, and support for improved sanitation which, in turn, can support cleaner energy initiatives.

Second, until the impacts of climate change are more keenly felt by global health professionals, the costs of reducing them will be borne solely by environmental budgets. New economic models that fully capture the externalities of the energy and food systems, and their subsequent impacts on health, will help to drive investment and ensure that this investment is distributed more broadly. However, while the costs are felt acutely, the benefits are diffuse, which means that success risks a dilemma – if we get it right, no one may notice the effort. This makes it imperative that all stakeholders are fully engaged from the beginning, that the co-benefits of collaboration are scoped, and their rewards recorded and clearly communicated.

Third, global health – a field heavily influenced by medical practitioners – often finds the language implicit in the planetary health discussion overly sensationalist and existentialist. While the challenges in planetary health are certainly alarming, planetary health professionals would be wise to think through how they can best deliver their message in an inviting, not alienating, manner.

Finally, we need to consider how and where the best discussions should take place. In the short term, there may be more value in environmentalists presenting at future World Health Summits than vice versa. We need to draw attention away from global health’s focus on short-term health wins towards the larger and longer-term issues of better environmental stewardship, reform of food systems, and the development of new and more sustainable sources of energy.

Global health needs to see the planet, and not just its inhabitants, as our patient.

By Jennifer Cole, Public Health Policy Advisor, Secretariat of the Rockefeller Economic  Council on Planetary Health, University of Oxford; Connor Rochford, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford; and Esther Schroeder, Worcester College, University of Oxford.

Innovation in technologies and systems is critical to addressing planetary health challenges. But what can be done to ensure that innovation systems respond effectively with positive social, environmental and economic consequences?

In this joint Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health–Oxford Martin School lecture, Michael Grubb, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at University College London and Member of the Economic Council Secretariat, speaks on how accelerating innovation in energy systems can be fostered by public policy, to shape a new industrial revolution generating fair and global solutions for planetary health.

Each September, as world leaders descend on New York, duelling narratives compete for attention during the frenetic opening week of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). While much of the media circus focused on US President Donald Trump’s attack on multilateralism and the laughs elicited by his “America First” remarks, global cooperation still triumphed, especially when it came to the climate agenda.

For the past decade, Climate Week – running in parallel to the UNGA – has successfully brought together international leaders from business, government and civil society to promote discussion on climate change and reinforce the need for collective, multilateral action on this front.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke of the reality that climate change is moving faster than we are, and the urgent need to deliver on the Paris commitments, particularly to raise ambition for the next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and to mobilise support around the many synergies and co-benefits of climate action.

The secretary-general cited the latest New Climate Economy report, which indicates that climate action and socio-economic progress can be mutually supportive, with estimated benefits of $26 trillion predicted by 2030, compared with business-as-usual scenarios. Other UN leaders such as the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Achim Steiner, spoke of how the air pollution agenda is galvanising action in favour of low carbon energy and transport systems. Patricia Espinosa of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat spoke of the need for an inclusive multilateral approach that increases the number of voices around the table and integrates green growth, rights and poverty reduction. But she warned that countries are not living up to their emission reduction pledges as we head for an average global temperature rise of 3°C.

Across the many SDG-related events of the week – 336 by one count – progressive leaders from governments (both national and subnational), international organisations, business and finance spoke of what they are doing on climate action and their vision for change. A panel discussion convened by The Climate Group, Johnson & Johnson and The Rockefeller Economic Council on Planetary Health, of which I am the executive secretary, was one such event, and brought together healthcare leaders from business and government to discuss economic and policy solutions, and how to seize the opportunities presented by tackling climate change and interconnected health environmental crises.

At a national level, a growing number of countries are producing 2050 decarbonisation strategies, many with a net zero emissions goal. France and Sweden have led the way in making such a commitment and in the UK a cross-party consensus for 2050 net zero is emerging (Norway has even brought forward its net zero target to 2030.)

At Climate Week, US Governor Jerry Brown announced that California is seeking carbon neutrality and that this will require profound transformation and technological change. He noted, however, it will be a challenge as a net zero goal is in collision with continued, and in some cases rising demand for, and vested interests in, fossil fuels. The net zero commitments by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also provide huge challenges for her natural resource and agricultural-based economy. Meanwhile, President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands launched a net zero strategy, the first for a small island state, in an effort to shame big emitters to action.

Climate Week in New York is also a space for business and finance to show their commitments. The rise of the Green Bond market to an issuance of nearly $180 billion is an impressive signal of the shift amongst the financial community, but a gathering of bankers, asset managers and others indicates that progress is still nascent. Even the asset manager, Blackrock, whose chief executive Larry Fink has called for all businesses to have a social purpose and pursue a strategy for achieving long-term growth, is screening for coal-related investments across its $7 trillion portfolio. Without a realistic carbon price (the consensus of a gathering of finance leaders was that this must be greater than $100/tonne of CO2) and a shift from short termism, incentives are insufficient to shift investors adequately to address climate change risks and opportunities.

Throughout Climate Week, finance and business leaders, as much as political leaders, repeated their concern about the ongoing reliance on coal and oil in the energy mix and how far we are from meeting the Paris Agreement targets. The latest International Energy Agency report on energy transitions shows the high proportion of coal that persists in the G20 energy mix (more than 40% of the mix).

Yet, it was an impressive line-up of companies that spoke of their progress in decarbonisation, not only in their direct operations but throughout their supply chains. Their stories are dominated by the transformation of energy systems, the normalisation and mainstreaming of alternative energy systems driven by digital and material science technologies as well as government policies. The same exponential rate of change is now underway in the electric vehicle market, notably the electrification of China’s bus fleets.

New York City Climate Week 2018 came on the heels of the Global Climate Action Summit in California. In both instances, leaders of countries, governments, cities and business have set out visions, plans and actions on climate change. Much is underway, but it’s short of the level of action needed to really address climate change. A stronger multilateral regime is required, bolstered by these many actors – and by action across a wide range of sectors including agriculture, food, nature-based solutions and health. Let’s hope we can come back in a year from now for the UN secretary-general’s special climate summit and see how many of the initiatives highlighted this past week have mobilised action and made progress.

By Sam Bickersteth, Executive Director, The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health