Countries have begun to prioritize health in their efforts to protect people from the impact of climate change, but only about a quarter of those recently surveyed by the World Health Organization have been able to fully implement their national health and climate change plans or strategies. Countries report that a lack of funding; the impact of COVID-19; and insufficient human resource capacity are major barriers to progress.
The 2021 WHO health and climate change global survey report finds, however, that over three quarters of surveyed countries have developed or are currently developing national health and climate change plans or strategies.
Some 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 ministry of health has established a stakeholder mechanism (such as a task force or committee) on health and climate change.
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 incorporate 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.
The WHO survey finds that insufficient finance continues to be the top stumbling block to fully implementing national health and climate change plans, cited by 70% of countries (up from 56% in 2019). Human resource constraints are the second biggest barrier, whilst about one third of countries identified a lack of intersectoral 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 multisectoral mechanisms.
The first report in this series was released in 2019. This second report provides a valuable snapshot of the overall progress governments have made in addressing the health risks of climate change.
“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.
Note for editors:
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2021 health and climate change global survey report provides a valuable snapshot of the overall progress governments have made in addressing the health risks of climate change. The findings on key health and climate change indicators aim to empower policy makers to: make informed decisions on the implementation of policies and plans; identify evidence gaps; and better understand the barriers to achieving adaptation and resilience priorities in the health sector while maximizing the health benefits of sector-wide climate mitigation efforts.
The health response to climate change is taking place within the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, continued environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, socio-economic inequities, and a chronic under-investment in health systems. Where data is available, the report aims to provide findings on these inter-related challenges.
Approximately two-thirds (67%) of surveyed countries have conducted a climate change and health vulnerability and adaptation assessment or are currently undertaking one. Assessment findings are informing health policies and programmes but continue to have a limited influence on the allocation of human and financial resources.
Over three-quarters (77%) of surveyed countries have developed or are currently developing national health and climate change plans or strategies. However, implementation is impeded by insufficient financing, human resource constraints, and limited research, evidence, technologies and tools.
About half of surveyed countries (52%) report the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on their work to protect health from climate change, diverting health personnel and resources and slowing the implementation of protective measures. Just one-third (33%) of country respondents have taken the opportunity to include climate change and health considerations in their plans for recovery from COVID-19.
There is progress in developing intersectoral collaboration on policies and programmes related to health and climate change. Most of these collaborations (>75% of country reported mechanisms) include representation from stakeholders or sectors addressing the environmental determinants of health such as safe water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH), clean air and meteorological services. Representation of stakeholders or sectors focused on the structural and social determinants of health, such as education, urban planning, housing, energy and transportation systems is less common (40-50% of country reported mechanisms).
Less than 40% of countries include weather and climate information in their health surveillance systems for climate-sensitive diseases. Most commonly countries have climate-informed health surveillance systems for vector-borne, waterborne, airborne or respiratory diseases.
Only one-third of surveyed countries have climate-informed health early warning systems for heat-related illness (33%) or injury and mortality from extreme weather events (30%) despite strong evidence that these risks are increasing around the world.
The health workforce is increasingly informed and trained on the connection between climate change and health (some level of training conducted in 42% of countries), but further efforts are needed to ensure capacity building covers a comprehensive set of relevant skills and is routinely integrated into health workforce development.
A growing number of countries (27%) have conducted assessments of the climate resilience of their health care facilities.
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.
Countries have significantly increased health considerations in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Almost all (94%) of 142 new or updated NDCs published in 2020-2021 mention health compared to 70% of 184 NDCs in 2019. The health benefits of climate mitigation are now referenced in 28% of new or updated NDCs up from 10% in 2019.