Countdown to COP26: four actions global leaders can take to tackle the climate crisis and improve health

Solutions to the climate crisis can also directly benefit people’s health. Alison Doig and Modi Mwatsama introduce the new Health and Climate Network, which is calling for leaders to steer their nations and the world towards a climate-resilient, healthy future.

Ice sculptures of children installed on New Brighton Beach begin to melt.

Ice sculptures of children installed on New Brighton Beach, UK, begin to melt. They were installed as part of a giant sand artwork to highlight global warming and the upcoming COP26 conference – the United Nations' 26th Climate Change Conference.



Christopher Furlong / Staff / Getty Images

The direct health threats from our changing climate are increasingly clear. Just this year we have seen extreme heat episodes across the US, extensive floods in China and Germany, and the horror of climate-induced famine in Madagascar

In August 2021, scientists from around the world presented the most authoritative and urgent report on the state of our changing climate in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report – declaring a ‘code red for humanity’. The report warned that with the current rate of global greenhouse gas emissions, the internationally-agreed target to keep the world from warming by more than 1.5C this century was ‘perilously close’, and ‘we must act decisively now, to keep 1.5 alive’. 

At the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow this November, leaders from 196 countries will interpret just what the IPCC’s warning means for their own citizens, economy and the world, and agree action to limit climate change and its effects.  

What actions should leaders take to tackle the climate crisis and protect health? 

The solutions to the climate crisis – sustainable food, clean energy, active transport and a resilient health system – can also directly benefit people’s health across the globe. 

The Wellcome-hosted Health and Climate Network (HCN) – an alliance of civil society organisations from the health, climate and related sectors – has recently published a set of evidence-informed briefing papers on the actions global leaders can take to jointly address the climate crisis and poor health outcomes.

In the months running up to COP26, there are some key moments where the HCN wants leaders to commit to positive change:

Shift to sustainable food production and healthy diets 

Poor diet is having health impacts in every country and is now the leading driver of ill health globally, through diet-related conditions such as undernutrition, obesity, heart attack, stroke and diabetes. Food systems also produce between 20 and 35% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

The UN Food Systems Summit in New York in September 2021 is an opportunity for the world to reset how we produce food and what we eat. The HCN will call for a shift towards climate-resilient sustainable food systems that do not add to climate change, can support healthier diets that are rich in fruits, vegetables, pulses and nuts, and significantly reduce avoidable deaths worldwide. 

The evidence the HCN has gathered tells us that, to benefit climate and improve diets, we need a shift from resource-intensive industrially farmed food commodities, towards more resilient and sustainable farming methods. Examples include agroecology and organic farming, and learning from indigenous farming practices, which support diversified foods and diets.

Provide carbon-free renewable energy 

The burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – in the production of energy is the leading cause of climate change and a major source of air pollution, responsible for nearly three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions. Evidence shows that coal is the worst offender; of the three fossil fuels it produces the greatest amount of greenhouse gas emissions and high levels of damaging air pollutants, posing a significant health risk. 

When the G20 leaders meet in Italy in September 2021, a critical debate will be how quickly they can transition their economies out of coal.

The HCN message to the G20 countries is that providing pollution and carbon-free renewable energy to everyone who needs it will dramatically benefit the climate, human health and the economy. We have the technologies to do this, we just need the political will to make it happen.

Prioritise transport systems which benefit our health and planet

Transport plays a critical role in trade, mobility and access to goods, services and employment. However, it also accounts for 24% of direct carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel use. Modern transport systems also contribute to ill health, including through air pollution, traffic injuries and deaths, and health risks associated with physical inactivity such as obesity.  

The second UN Sustainable Transport Conference will take place in China in October 2021, and climate and health will be important issues on the agenda. The call from the HCN to governments is to prioritise walking, cycling and clean public transport in planning and infrastructure decisions to both reduce emissions and increase health benefits. 

Build resilient health systems

While responding to Covid-19, the world also has to prepare for and respond to the direct health threats from the climate crisis. Climate change is putting increasing strain on healthcare provision around the world. Already limited services are often disrupted by climate disasters, such as heatwaves, floods and droughts.

The health system is, itself, adding to the climate threat and the resulting health risk. Current systems of healthcare provision account for 4.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If global healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth largest climate polluter on the planet. 

The World Health Summit in Berlin in October 2021 will provide an opportunity to tell the world that healthcare providers have to be part of the solution too. The call from the HCN to the health sector is that sustainable, resilient health systems are needed to deliver care when and where it is needed in an unstable and changing climate, without further damaging the environment.

We must act now to save the planet, health and economies 

The World Health Organization has shown that the health gains from achieving the Paris climate agreement goals would more than meet the financial cost of climate mitigation at a global level. 

As countries invest in Covid-19 recovery, leaders must also steer their nations and the world towards a climate-resilient, healthy future. The race to zero greenhouse gas emissions is also a race to save lives.

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