Humanity is dependent on the environment and natural ecosystems for livelihood, food security, health and quality of life. However, by exploiting natural resources, humanity has reached a tipping point whereby the impact of human activity on the environment is starting to have a negative impact on our health and well-being, from an increase in water-related diseases and air pollution to food scarcity and deforestation.

The concept of planetary health has only recently entered debates of global health and environmental issues, but it is particularly distinguished from current narratives on health and the environment in that it makes an explicit link between human activity, environment and health through a multidisciplinary approach. Advancement towards planetary health requires an understanding of the connections between the environment and human health and how to conserve and rehabilitate ecological pathways to provide human health benefits. To achieve these objectives, collaboration and coordination between different stakeholders and shareholders, particularly in the private sector, are necessary.

Today, large private corporations find themselves in the spotlight like never before for contributing to exhausting natural capital. Businesses depend on natural resources for direct inputs, for instance, water and materials, and suffer indirect impacts when events caused by environmental degradation, such as floods, impede production and distribution activities.

Illustrative photo of flooded vehicles after a storm (Photo by Chris Gallagher)

Traditionally, the main success indicator of performance measurement and management in corporate businesses has largely been financial profit. This traditional way of making and assessing performance, however, is being increasingly challenged due to multiple stakeholder pressures on corporations: consumers are shifting towards products that are produced using sustainable, environmentally friendly methods and technologies; employees demand transparency from corporations, and governments are increasingly enforcing regulations to lower waste and pollution levels.

A responsible business, therefore, balances the needs of all of its stakeholders with the need to make profit and aims to create profitable solutions for environmental and social challenges that adversely impact people and the planet. Companies need to be aware of the impact that their operations and products have on the environment and human health and well-being. As such, it is predicted that large multinationals will play a leading role in enhancing the well-being of communities surrounding their operations and protecting the environment upon which human well-being is contingent. They are expected to actively and responsibly participate in achieving the globally agreed-upon Sustainable Development Goals to build a more environmentally secure planet and ensure that nine billion people can live well by 2030.

To do so, businesses are moving beyond profit-centric and sustainable strategies to exert a positive influence on society and the environment. This includes incorporating non-financial metrics into accounting and profit and loss statements to develop long-term human, social and natural capital and improve societal and environmental conditions, which may, then, have a positive impact on human health and well-being. It is worth noting that it is only recently that corporations have become concerned with and vocal about sustainable business practices. Corporations, such as BASF, Mars Corporation, LafargeHolcim and Conservatorio – to name a few – are at the forefront of redefining their purpose and performance. These companies are incorporating a range of non-financial assessment approaches, such as impact valuation and non-financial metrics, as well as the Exploring Natural Capital Opportunities, Risks and Exposure (ENCORE) web-based tool that conducts natural capital assessments for economic sectors, and the Economics of Mutuality (EoM) framework into their corporate strategies. Basing their decisions around these approaches, tools and frameworks will allow businesses to improve their overall value creation and become more responsible and sustainable in their impacts on society and the environment.

These approaches, however, often ignore the interconnections between the multiple impacts that businesses may have on society and the environment. Corporations often do not make explicit the link between the environment and human health and well-being in their non-financial measurement approaches, as health and the environment are mostly considered to be separate and are measured by independent metrics. This needs to change.

The links between the environment and human health cannot be understated, as environmental degradation is increasingly having an impact on human health and well-being. It would, therefore, be valuable for corporate businesses to expand their approaches and tools to consider the connection and interdependency between natural systems and human health and well-being and start to operationalize the notion of planetary health.

By Priya Sajjad, PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Oxford

Achieving planetary health is about drastically changing economies, industries and consumption patterns globally in order to reduce their impact on the environment and human health. This means a radical shift to healthier and more environmentally friendly production processes and behaviours, and the need to create technologies and infrastructure to replace existing ones. Making this shift comes at a cost, but should be seen as an investment for the future, both as protective and preventive action against threats to planetary health.

Here are seven propositions to reshape the financial system in favour of planetary health, building on ongoing discussions involving financial regulators and financial institutions. The EU Action Plan on Sustainable Finance already offers a good opportunity to put planetary health topics on the agenda of mainstream policy-makers. While this EU framework is currently focused on climate mitigation, it could serve to open the way for addressing broader sustainability issues, including planetary health.

1. Systemic risk and prudential regulation
The stability of the financial system can be affected by planetary health issues and consequent financial risks, and reciprocally planetary health may suffer from biases in prudential regulation, typically favouring short-term and low-risk investments where long-term and risky investments would be appropriate. Therefore, prudential regulation should be enhanced following a precautionary approach to be able to cope with the forthcoming unprecedented and swingeing risks, and to help finance become a net contributor to planetary health. Penalizing factors can be put in place to account for the detrimental effect and long-term risk carried by some economic activities that we want to avoid. Other prudential tools that may be employed include countercyclical and systemic risk capital buffers, lender/borrower constraints on credit allocation, or credit guidance and requirements to hold certain shares of assets, depending on their positive/adverse contribution to planetary health. More generally speaking, clarification of which economic activities are harmful/necessary for planetary health would allow the appropriate use of prudential tools and other regulatory measures, based on such distinctions.

2. Classification of sustainable economic activities
The European Commission is working on a taxonomy of sustainable economic activities, which is to serve as a backbone for all financial tools and criteria that present themselves as “sustainable”. The development of such a classification system started in 2018 with climate mitigation, and is to be extended to climate adaptation and broader sustainability issues, including pollution prevention and control, and protection of healthy ecosystems. This initiative strongly resonates with the planetary health approach. An alternative approach would be to develop a negative taxonomy, which would certainly be easier and more effective to implement, highlighting those activities and technologies that are not sustainable under certain conditions. Such an approach has not yet been developed at the institutional level, but has been recently proposed by central banks and financial supervisors. Classification of economic activities that are either compatible or incompatible with planetary health could be created and maintained by core administrations attached to governments – potentially emerging from a UN body – and be associated with policies and regulations applied to the financial system.

Photo by Markus Spiske

3. Labelling, indices and funds, and fiscal policy
Identifying what is green/brown or aiding/damaging planetary health makes the investor’s job easier, especially for individuals, in managing their savings. With such a characterisation – based on a taxonomy similar to the ones discussed above and targeting companies, projects and activities that really need to attract additional financing – it becomes possible to put a planetary health label on investment products. Such labelling has the power to guide investors on impactful products, and to curtail investment flows to those that do not support planetary health priorities. It can be powerful, especially on main stock indices, as they are a core benchmark for all market participants. A complementary approach to positive labelling can rely on blacklisting (i.e. negative screening) of bad activities for planetary health, which can be more intelligible for investors as well as more impactful.

4. Mandatory reporting framework
Without appropriate disclosure, investors, governments and citizens cannot know what currently transpires in the financial markets, and it is impossible to monitor and assess alignment with current climate targets or upcoming planetary health objectives. Governments need to impose more disclosure throughout the financial chain with precise guidelines and standards for financial reporting, so that end users can easily identify and compare financial institutions in order to choose where to entrust their money. Making such disclosures mandatory will not necessarily drive an instantaneous change within corporations, but it will give external stakeholders, including governments, the capacity to engage with companies and stimulate them to change. Achieving efficient disclosure and reporting is with the indispensable deep reform of current accounting principles, which fall short of integrating planetary health considerations or any non-purely-financial items. Accounting is the primary tool that defines a company’s value and its main rules governing activities and management. But without such normative planetary health accounting rules, most economic decisions will never effectively address planetary health.

5. Fiduciary duty
A core concept of financial management is the notion of fiduciary duty to the client. Managing other people’s money comes with responsibilities, which could include investment managers actively financing planetary health as a target in order to avoid long-term threats that could affect the client’s financial interest. Similarly, it would be a breach of fiduciary duty to invest in “bad” assets (e.g. generating pollution), if the general market consensus is to start avoiding them. Integrating planetary health in fiduciary duty would represent a great power of change, enabling a massive shift of money flows. This could be a part of respective regulations defining fiduciary duties in each jurisdiction. More broadly, such approaches should be extended to all bodies and rules of the financial system, aiming for enhanced accountability of financial market participants and intermediaries (stock exchanges, rating agencies, etc.).

6. Shareholder engagement
As shareholders, investors have significant powers to orient companies’ strategic choices and to impel them on planetary health pathways, even against the wishes of the company management. Compared to measures that tend to favour companies that are already “green”, shareholder engagement has the power to incentivize those that are not, and therefore constitutes a strong tool for change. Institutional investors are not passive and many are committed to achieving the SDGs. Thus, they can be committed to planetary health, or on behalf of their clients, and vote as active shareholders to push investee companies to shift their activities to more sustainable pathways.

7. Monetary policy
Central banks play a significant role in ensuring economic stability. While many central bankers argue that their role in directing money is to be “neutral”, that is not always the case. For example, the European Central Bank tends to favour today’s main industries, which are highly carbon-intensive and falls short of directing investments in line with European climate policy goals. It is interesting to see, however, that some countries actively use their central banks to make economic choices, such as China and Brazil. After a campaign of quantitative easing following the most recent financial crisis, monetary policy and money creation are now being seen as avenues with the potential to be “greened” in aspects such as QE, and others such as collateralization. Implementing such a change would require a shift in mentality among central bankers. This will not be easy but the discussion has already started.

The financial sector has an important role to play in planetary health, but it is currently constrained by a number of obstacles, with short-termism being one of the more fundamental impediments. The best contribution that finance could make to planetary health is to rethink the financial system as a whole.

By Hugues Chenet, Finance Policy Adviser, Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health

Planetary health addresses issues as diverse as climate change, plastic pollution, antibiotic resistance, increasing meat consumption and poorly planned urban expansion, acting as a call to action to address the many challenges of the Anthropocene – the “Age of Man”.

There has never been a more pressing need to ensure the scientific community has a common platform from which to research, understand and influence action on the environmental damage inflicted by the modern lifestyles enjoyed in the developed countries of the Global North. Over the last twelve millennia, humanity’s progression past subsistence agriculture has seen the development of food, energy, transport and trading systems that have cost nature. The more we have “tamed” ecosystems, the less we have valued them.

For this reason, the recent vote by the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, to formally consider the Anthropocene a distinct time period in the geological record, is a momentous event. The final decision is yet to be made on exactly when humanity’s manipulation of the planet beyond the forces of nature began, but the scientific community is now in agreement that the way in which we have reshaped the Earth warrants official recognition.

Photo by Thomas Richter

Humankind needs to re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world. The formal declaration of the Anthropocene could, however, be seen as a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it may lend weight to national and international policies aimed at curbing carbon emissions and protecting wildlife, and support those that seek to reduce the use of plastics and toxic chemicals. It should support initiatives that encourage healthier diets and lower-impact lifestyles, promoting ecological and environmental benefits alongside, and integrated with, those of benefit to human health.

But is the Anthropocene just another manifestation of the anthropocentric self-absorption of a “me” generation that wants to see itself as special – fundamentally different from the many hundreds of human generations that have come before? Never before have Earth’s inhabitants, rather than the Earth itself, defined a boundary of geological time. Does this risk separating us further from nature and our conceptualisation of our place in the universe, rather than bringing us closer to it?

The Quaternary Period, in which we currently live and within which the Anthropocene will fit, began 2.58 million years ago. The Holocene Epoch that the Anthropocene is set to supersede started just 11,650 years ago with the last glacial retreat: the blink of an eye in the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history. Geologists have typically worked in timelines that span millennia, not decades. Is the official recognition of the Anthropocene scientifically necessary, or just the ultimate planetary selfie?

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, Japan (Photo by Federico Sironi)

The exact date chosen to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene may have profound implications on how impactful the decision to delineate it becomes. The AWG favours the mid-20th century and the clear geological marker of the increased radionuclides released by the atomic bomb tests of the early 1950s. Others argue for earlier beginnings and different markers: the first time the levels of atmospheric carbon we released to the atmosphere rose above what nature could remove, for instance, or the earliest domestication of plants and animals.

Archaeologists, however, may look instead to the appearance of new materials in the traces society leaves behind, pointing to a “plastic age” that follows on from previous stone, bronze and iron-age delineators of human progress. Historians might focus on a shift from physical artefacts to digital remains – written records, images, maps and accounts of our age now exist in cyberspace rather than in physical form. These also point to a fundamental change in the mid-20th century and thus favour the date towards which the AWG has gravitated: focusing on a date aligned with the beginning of the Great Acceleration may well emphasise the need to slow down, pull back from the brink of environmental collapse and learn to live within the boundaries of our planet. It may help identify when we began to go too far astray and precisely which behaviours we need to modify.

While last month’s vote could be seen as scientific minutiae – the general public and most of academia have been referring to the Anthropocene quite happily for nearly two decades – official recognition does bed-in the idea that we are living on an Earth that we have fundamentally changed. Considering our somewhat pathological desire to stamp our mark, perhaps we will just as soon be clamouring for another change, to define “our” age as different from that of the previous generation. More eco-centric academics already talk about the need to exit the Anthropocene and to look forward towards a new Symbiocene or Ecocene in which we learn to respect our place in nature and tread lightly on the Earth once again. At least now we’ve officially entered the Anthropocene, we might be better placed to look for the exit.

 By Jennifer Cole, Public Health Policy Adviser, Secretariat of the Rockefeller Economic Council on Planetary Health, University of Oxford, and author of the forthcoming CABI textbook Planetary Health: Human Health in an Era of Global Environmental Change. This article was first published on the CABI Blog

Changes to earth’s systems are a growing threat to human health. These changes include worsening air pollution, which kills some 7 million people each year, and climate change, which exposed 157 million more people to heatwaves in 2017 than in 2000. Another critical change in earth’s systems is the loss of biodiversity – the variety of life on earth.

The importance of biodiversity to human health is frequently cited. For example, the recent IPBES summary for policy-makers states that “the deterioration of biodiversity and ecosystem functions, and the consequent disruption of benefits to people, has both direct and indirect implications for public health”. This statement follows decades of research exploring how natural systems contribute to human health and well-being. But does this evidence actually demonstrate that biodiversity underpins human health and if so, how important is it? Do we understand enough to promote biodiversity conservation as a public health intervention?

In our recently released report, Evidencing Links between Biodiversity and Health, we synthesised research connecting health to biodiversity using a water quality example. We found strong evidence that biodiversity sustains ecosystem processes, as well as plausible mechanisms through which biodiversity can enhance water quality. Our review also restated the importance of water quality to the health of vulnerable populations, such as the 159 million people exposed to illness through their dependence on surface water. With these points in mind, making the case that biodiversity influences health through its positive effect on water quality is conceptually straightforward.

Yet, we find few empirical estimates connecting these two bodies of research. A key question remains: what quantifiable effect does biodiversity loss have on health through water quality? What is the scale of this effect compared to other watershed factors, such as land use? Our review was limited in depth and scope and only focused on the example of water quality. Nevertheless, similar or greater levels of uncertainty are likely to exist for other proposed mechanisms connecting biodiversity and health.

If biodiversity loss is to be taken seriously as a public health and development issue, we need to provide convincing estimates of the disease burden associated with it. We also need to show how biodiversity protection can provide similar benefits compared to established public health interventions. For example, The Nature Conservancy estimates that the cost of watershed conservation (but not biodiversity protection specifically) would be offset by municipal water treatment savings in one-in-six sampled cities globally.

Part of the challenge of communicating research in this area is that the term biodiversity – diversity at a species, genetic, or functional level – is sometimes misused to mean habitat, nature or wildlife. This obscures the role of biodiversity in human health, and ultimately, how natural landscapes should be managed for health.

In some instances, we may not have empirical estimates of biodiversity-health links, but there may exist a strong conceptual case coupled with a potentially high cost of inaction. In these cases, we should explicitly recognise this uncertainty while advocating for precautionary and no-regrets approaches. Nevertheless, policy-makers would benefit from empirical evidence when deciding if biodiversity conservation is a sensible public health strategy.

Although biodiversity loss is a major global concern, if we wish to use public health benefits as an argument for conservation, we must provide the right evidence supporting this claim.

By Thomas Pienkowski, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

Earlier this year I had the privilege to participate in the Prince Mahidol Award Conference, an annual global health gathering sponsored by the Government of Thailand. This year’s theme – The political economy of NCDs: The whole of society approach – reinforced the importance of inclusivity and multistakeholder engagement in identifying and implementing solutions to non-communicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes.

NCDs account for the greatest share of deaths globally. In the Asia-Pacific region, for example, NCDs are now the most significant cause of death and disease burden. Most premature deaths from NCDs are associated with the main modifiable risk factors, namely tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, harmful use of alcohol and air pollution.

Air pollution and low physical activity risk factors present opportunities to target policy action to improve the environment and to improve human health. During the week of PMAC, Bangkok was experiencing one of its worst air quality episodes in recent years. A combination of factors was responsible – air emissions from industry, motor vehicle use, burning of sugar cane and dry weather conditions. Conference goers and locals alike found themselves using apps for PM2.5 real-time readings and looked to buy air quality masks.

A session on the first day of the conference highlighted available science-based tools which could be used to address environmental risk factors of NCDs. I was privileged to be in the company of experts who work in scientific research and who have deep experience in applying scientific knowledge to inform policy decisions. We represented academia (University of Sydney, University of Oxford), government (Ministry of Health and Sports of Myanmar, US National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences), multilateral organizations (OECD) and multilateral funding entities (Green Climate Fund).

We shared tools which are aimed at specific policy uses. The OECD’s work on a simulation modeling tool estimates NCD prevalence and informs cost-effectiveness analysis and takes into account the costs of human health effects, labour productivity and aggregate GDP. These can support country-level investment decisions such as on infrastructure, which could promote healthy lifestyles and reduce NCD risk.

The use of the Health Impact Assessment (HIA) tool can be adapted to help identify win-win solutions to improve health while also reducing the ecological footprint across such areas as transport, land use and health.

Inle Lake, Myanmar

From the country perspective, Myanmar’s Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health and Sports presented on NCD threats facing the country, particularly diabetes. Myanmar is also concerned about climate change and health and well-being, especially the effects of extreme events like cyclones. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the human health effects of other environmental stressors such as water contamination. As a result, there is increasing worry about displaced communities and scarcity of resources.

Participants at the conference were also interested in learning about additional tools to help address the environmental risk factors of NCDs. Other points raised included the need for HIA to be more systematic and less procedural, and should be made more meaningful to address linked environment health issues. Data integration is key for improved assessment and monitoring of health outcomes over changing environmental conditions. This requires interoperable environmental and health data platforms to facilitate interpretation and analysis to directly inform policy.

We know that policy action on NCDs has to come from health and non-health sectors. Highlighting existing tools and how they can be enhanced based on increasing understanding of environment-NCD relationships puts us on good course towards a practice of multi-sectoral policy collaboration.

By Montira Pongsiri, Senior Science Policy Adviser, Secretariat of the Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health

Have you ever heard of planetary health? I hadn’t before I started writing reports on the issue. The official definition is that planetary health is a multi-disciplinary approach to understand natural and human environments as one connected system.

Got it yet? No? Well, I find it tricky to explain, but the secretariat of the The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health at the Oxford Martin School are doing a great job working out what planetary health means for you and me. In the process of working this out, the team has come up with some examples of planetary health issues to help academics, decision-makers and policy-makers catch the vision for this multi-disciplinary approach.

This is where these reports come in (written with Anitha Devadason from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in the US). We have co-written two reports that try to navigate two complicated systems that are themselves interconnected with each other.

The first report, led by Anitha, focuses upon the impacts of climate change and associated sea-level rise on human health and livelihoods in small island states, particularly in the Pacific (where Anitha spent time working for the World Health Organisation in Fiji). The report shows that climate change is a present-day threat to key sources of government revenue, especially fishing, and that economic livelihoods in Pacific Island Countries that are at risk from limited adaptation capacity. One stark issue discussed is the currently limited rights of individuals forced to migrate due to climate change.

The second report (led by me) considers the train of events — both human and natural — that lead to risks of mental health problems caused by coastal flooding. As a climate scientist, it was fascinating to explore the research done on mental health, and the report attempts to draw this storyline into something that could be tested to see if, one, we could measure the impact of increasing coastal flooding due to sea-level rise on mental health problems over the 20th century, and two, consider how mental health problems might change in the future due to enhanced climate change.

One topical message that comes out is that rapidly cutting our carbon emissions will slow the current rate of sea-level rise, giving us a bit more time to develop ways of better protecting our coastlines (though retreat should be a genuine option on any decision-makers table if a coastline is eroding fast), which in turn will help limit flood-induced mental health problems.

This pair of reports, as with others published by the Economic Council, tackle one to two strands of this complex and interconnected world we live in, in terms of our planetary health.

By Luke Jackson, Research Fellow at Climate Econometrics, Nuffield College

This blog was also published on the Climate Econometrics website.

The idyllic Micronesian island of Kiribati, next door to French Polynesia (Tahiti) and boasting one of the largest marine sanctuaries in the world, is a tropical paradise. It’s hard to believe that its people are expected to become some of the world’s first climate change refugees.

When we think of population displacement, we often think of people fleeing war zones and conflicts. But climate change also displaces people. In fact, many island populations fear not only the loss of their homeland forever, but also the loss of their culture and identity, livelihoods and potentially their rights.

They are not protected under the Refugee Convention, and will receive none of the legal protections afforded to refugees. According to the UN, refugee status is conferred following persecution or violence; it does not extend to those displaced by climate stress or crises. This dilemma leaves Pacific island nations such as Kiribati high and dry, set to face health implications including food insecurity, increased morbidity and mental health issues. They will also confront governance challenges including the right to work and access to health services in the country of placement. So where do they land?

Climate change refugee status needs to be internationally recognized with rights under the Refugee Convention. Host countries need to accept these populations and prepare for population migration, considering that these island populations that have contributed the least to global climate change will bear the brunt of its detrimental effects.

Bangladesh faces losing 18% of its land, displacing 30 million people, with one metre sea-level rise. (Photo by Adrien Taylor)

Efforts have been made to address climate change and disaster-induced displacement such as the Nansen Initiative, a state-led, consultative process that seeks to identify effective efforts and address the protection of displaced peoples. In 2015, 109 countries endorsed the Nansen Initiative affirming to better support populations displaced by climate-induced disasters.

Preparation for — and dialogue surrounding — displacement can ensure successful relocation results for both the host country and displaced population. The Tuvalans, relocated from the atoll of Vaitupu to Kioa Island in Fiji, show what success could look like. They chose to move, and having that choice helped ensure a successful relocation.

However, it should be a responsibility of all nations — and a wake-up call to all governments — to put forward an agenda to address climate change mitigation. While efforts are underway, they may not occur in time to remedy or offset these effects for Pacific peoples. And their plight translates to other small island developing states such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Climate change will affect people in coastal areas in the future, from Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to Bangladesh and the Netherlands. There are health ramifications to this as well. The resilience of health systems to rebound from increased bombardment by natural disasters will be tested; some health systems could eventually collapse.

Will steps be taken in time? All nations need to act now, with a concerted effort to offset the impacts of climate change. And the recognition of climate change refugees is needed before the way of life of island residents sinks beneath the waves forever.

By Caroline Anitha Devadason, a public health professional consulting with the Secretariat of the Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health.

This piece was first published in Global Health Now on 31 January 2019.

Paris proved a fitting backdrop for the Green Growth Knowledge Platform’s annual conference this year, which focused on social inclusion in green growth policies. Central thoroughfares of the city were blocked by ‘les gilets jaunes’ who were protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax hikes. They are so called for the ‘yellow jackets’ which French law requires all drivers to carry.

The aim of the GGKP Annual Conference and Learning Forum was to examine how pro-environment, pro-economic growth policies can also tackle social equality and ‘Leave No-one Behind’ in the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As we heard diverse evidence of green economic transitions presented over four days, from both developed and developing countries, we concluded that green growth policies will not succeed unless they explicitly address social inclusion and workers’ needs.

Social inclusion climbs the agenda

Since the GGKP’s founding in 2012, much research, policy development and advocacy effort have gone into making the case for green growth while often the aspects of equity and inclusion have appeared to be secondary.

The ‘les gilets jaunes’ offered a visible reminder this year to conference delegates that important fiscal measures to discourage pollution and nudge forward green behaviours can impose painful costs on workers and households.

A protester in Paris holds a sign that reads ‘Citizen referendum initiative’ (Norbu Gyachung

As well as discussing the unfolding events in France, delegates considered how South African miners have protested against renewable energy investments, and the public has protested against the reduction of subsidies that are propping up fossil fuel consumption in Nigeria.

Macroeconomic studies support the case that a green economy can benefit workers overall. The ILO report Greening with Jobs shows that a transition to a low-carbon economy in line with the Paris climate agreement can produce 24 million new jobs against the likely loss of 6 million jobs under business as usual. However, it’s up to government leaders to prepare society for the transitions to a greener economy and to offer material compensation to those who are negatively affected.

Policies for a green economy must support workers who are negatively affected

The crux of the transition is that ‘brown’ and ‘green’ jobs require different knowledge and skills. Workers need significant support if they are to be successfully redeployed to new industries.

It is imperative for governments – and firms – to consider how workers could be displaced by the transition to a greener economy, and to look at how they can be compensated and retrained.

The Government of Poland was on the front foot by launching a Just Transition Declaration in the run-up to United Nations climate talks (COP24), which it hosted from 3-15 December 2018. The COP24 took place in the centre of Poland’s Upper Silesian coal belt, home to many of the 90,000 Polish workers who are still employed in coal mining.

“Considering the social aspect of the transition towards a low-carbon economy is crucial for gaining social approval for the changes taking place,” reads the Declaration (which to date has been signed by some 54 government representatives and world leaders). “Public policies to reduce emissions will face social resistance and significant political risks for the governments implementing them if they are not accompanied by social security programmes for workers whose jobs will be lost or transformed. For these reasons, the issue of fair transition is a vital issue for governments, social partners and civil society organisations.”

Spain is currently rolling out a policy to manage this type of transition: this year, the Government of Spain must end coal production subsidies, in order to meet European Union requirements. This development, along with lower coal prices on global markets, will put the country’s remaining 40,000 coal miners out of work. As reported in the Huffington Post, the government will plough US$285 million into compensation payments and retraining schemes for coal miners over the coming decade. Miners previously protested their economic grievances on the government’s doorstep in Madrid; the coming months will tell whether miners consider this new social safety net to be adequate to support them and their families.

A sign on display at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, December 2018. (Jon Tyson)

Not just ‘any job’ – an agenda for ‘decent green jobs’

One of the most important aspects of adjusting to a new, green economy is creating decent jobs for workers who are displaced. Take the example of Aberdeen, Scotland, the centre of the United Kingdom’s North Sea oil and gas industry. Since the early 1970s, workers (mostly men) have been employed in lucrative jobs on offshore oil rigs. As oilfields are closed down, redeploying workers to jobs of equivalent pay and status may mean significant retraining, for example, in the nascent offshore wind power industry or other renewable energy jobs. Speakers made the point that offering oil workers low-paid work in call centres or other services sector roles would cause significant social dislocation.

“The decarbonisation process must create quality jobs,” said Montserrat Mir Roca, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Unions Confederation. “It is an opportunity for good quality employment.” In this era of the rising gig economy where workers suffer the job insecurity of zero-hours contracts, Ms Roca’s intervention was a reminder of how green jobs fit into larger employment trends.

Meanwhile, evidence presented from the United States demonstrated that green policies can improve labour market opportunities for lower-skilled workers.

Olivier Deschenes, University of Santa Barbara, said it is a myth that green transitions hurt the least skilled workers the most. On the contrary, his analysis showed that “all education groups benefited from green labour policy [in the US] but the biggest benefiter was the lower-skilled workers. [They achieved] 15% more real wage bill growth compared to higher skilled and educated workers.”

Green jobs are part of a bigger picture

Existing and looming imbalances in many labour markets – i.e. skills shortages in some areas and surplus in others – present knotty challenges.

Already, OECD countries are ‘struggling’ to match employees with vacancies in the labour market, according to Fabio Manca, Economist at the OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. The automation of jobs (and related displacement of workers by robots) is another global macroeconomic trend, in which the green economy transition is located. Some 32% of all jobs in the OECD will stand to be substantially changed (and 14% of them made redundant) by automation. Policy-makers will need to plan the transition to the green economy and support for workers in the context of this larger labour market picture.

Green fiscal policies to discourage polluting behaviour and hasten a green economic transition are also an essential part of this wider picture.

One successful fiscal measure in the spotlight – from which other countries and regions can learn – is British Columbia’s carbon tax. First introduced in 2008, this tax “provides a signal across the economy to reduce emissions while encouraging sustainable economic activity and investment in low carbon innovation” and has not held back the province’s economic growth (real GDP growth of 17% from 2007-2017 while emissions fell almost 5%). To support greater ambition, British Columbia is now increasing the tax incrementally from $35/tonC to $50/tonC and instituting a climate action tax credit.

British Columbia, Canada (Courtnie Tosana)

Of course, the above examples of worker dislocation and the search for a ‘just transition’ were all from developed countries with histories of organised labour and collective bargaining. We were interested to see how the notion of a ‘just transition’ could apply in developing countries. Several best practices and challenges emerged.

Helping workers visualise their green career path

In Indonesia, Mariski Nirwan of GGGI Indonesia described how her team, based in the National Institute of Public Administration, is trying to develop green careers advice and mid-career retraining to the country’s 4.5 million civil servants and so prepare them for a green transition before job displacement occurs. Still in its early stages, she said she hopes her nascent programme can help employees plot green career pathways to withstand the many variables that will shape their working lives.

Hard-to-reach informal sector workers

One-third of the world’s workers work in the informal sector – unregulated and unsupported – according to Steven Stone, UN Environment’s Head of Resources and Markets.

Several inspiring and innovative examples of channelling informal sector workers into the ‘circular economy’ by developing safe, green jobs were highlighted during the conference. For instance, Ella Pad, Bangladesh showcased how they are reusing textile scraps from the garment industries to make low-cost sanitary napkins. In so doing, providing a safer work environment for more than 50,000 female workers.

Also in Bangladesh, a waste management company produces fertiliser from collecting fruit and vegetable waste in Dhaka. If all the waste was collected, according to Catherine Saget of the ILO, then 1,600 jobs would be created. However, she added, an ILO survey showed that “most training programmes were focused on youth, and on particular sectors, and on skilled and semi-skilled workers. So have to think of other policies/programmes to reach adult workers and unskilled workers.”

The green learning challenge

It was encouraging to see so many processes underway to support the exchange of knowledge and experience on green economy transitions.

Building domestic capacity and skills take time. We were struck by the fact that many different kinds of support will be needed: including peer-to-peer exchange and career development, within government, within private businesses and in intermediary and support institutions such as NGOs, community-based organisations and municipalities. Establishing collaborative learning networks will be a key element.

CDKN’s nascent peer-to-peer exchange programme on climate compatible development – with new funding from the Government of the Netherlands and IDRC-Canada – will make a contribution as one of many international initiatives.

As Seth Cook of IIED said: “The green economy is vast and no single training institution can cover all of them. We need to make use of materials from all these institutions and customise them and tailor them to different situations.”

By Sam Bickersteth, Executive Director, The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health, and Mairi Dupar, Global Public Affairs Coordinator, Climate and Development Knowledge Network.

This article was first published on the Climate and Development Knowledge Network website on 18 December 2018.

Air pollution affects people of all ages and across all social classes throughout the world – from the devastating forest fires wreaking havoc on California to worsening air quality conditions in India. The impacts, however, are felt most strongly by the poorest and most vulnerable – the old, the young, people living with pre-existing health conditions and those in areas of greatest exposure to dirty air.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution kills 7 million people worldwide and is the second leading cause of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer, heart and lung disease, stroke and diabetes. It also has a massive impact on economies, estimated at $5.1 trillion, says the World Bank.

Fossil fuel energy production, industrial and transport systems, urbanisation, domestic energy use and agriculture are all sources of C02 and other air pollutants (e.g. black carbon, ozone and methane). One way or another, all air pollutants have an impact on human health and most adversely contribute to climate change.

But just as air pollution and climate change are closely linked, they can have similar solutions – whether it’s reducing the burning of coal or kerosene, or relying less on cars and more on cycling and walking and improved public transportation. The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C makes the case that limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being.

Air pollution – whether industrial- or agricultural-based emissions – is often a transboundary issue and a number of mechanisms have emerged to address it. One of the most successful collaborative air pollution conventions today is the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLTRAP), which addresses the impacts and sources of acid rain and sulphur (amongst other pollutants) across most of the Northern Hemisphere. More recently, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Air Pollution has mobilised action on haze from agricultural and forest burning across South East Asia. Participating countries have joined the convention as they perceive there are benefits, such as a better environment and good health.

Data, knowledge and competency gaps, however, need to be filled for a more complete understanding of air pollution and to support actions. For example, air pollution monitors have already made a difference in informing policy resulting in reduced pollution levels in countries such as China. Better presentation of costs and benefits of pollution control interventions, the trade-offs across sectors and the wider economic impacts have successfully leveraged policy actions and legislation on air pollution in Chile and Mexico.

Data presented in reports, such as the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report – with its county-level score card – enable better transparency, in particular identifying on whom the costs and benefits fall. Campaigns such as the WHO’s BreatheLife Campaign are also necessary to mobilise action by citizens and influence public policy, demonstrating that air pollution is not the inevitable consequence of growth. Public engagement and mobilisation typically works well at the city level, but has been less effective in shifting changes in practice and behaviour by the polluting sectors.

If business, industry and financial sectors were required to consider health risks in their policies, investments and activities, there would be a better understanding of the gains and trade-offs from each action. But this requires interventions source by source and sector by sector to accelerate actions around air pollution, and as a result climate change.

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

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.