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Health care contributes 7% to Australia’s carbon emissions – but health is missing from our COP26 plan

Australia finally has a net zero plan at the Commonwealth level. But so far, health hasn’t been factored into Australia’s national climate response. The federal government has yet to announce plans specific to the sector or, more broadly, the health of Australians.

This is despite experts warning climate inaction is putting lives at risk and could overwhelm our health system, and Australia’s health sector accounting for 7% of the country’s carbon emissions.

Countries are expected to arrive in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, with dramatically scaled up commitments to those they pledged in Paris in 2015.

And health is clearly on the agenda. The UK government has announced a COP26 Health Programme, calling on governments to commit to climate resilience and low-carbon health systems.

But when it comes to how the health sector is affected by, and contributes to, emissions, Australia’s response is missing in action.

Australia’s report card

The COP26 Health Programme’s rationale is that climate change is driving poorer health outcomes, increasing deaths, and health inequities.

But health systems are well placed to be a significant part of the solution and can:

  • motivate stronger global ambition to reduce emissions

  • help protect people from negative impacts of climate change

  • and make a substantial contribution to reducing national and global emissions.

Australia is one of the most climate-vulnerable places on Earth. A hotter and more hostile climate spells dangers for the human population as well as the natural world. Extreme heat is impacting worker productivity, affecting outdoor community and sporting activities, and driving critical workforces, like doctors, away from the Northern Territory.

Health impacts of bushfires and smoke pollution and other extreme weather drives up demand for urgent health care. And as we have seen, infectious diseases like COVID can render our societies inoperable.

Novel viruses and infectious diseases like COVID are expected to increase in a warming world, and made even more likely due to human-caused destruction of natural environments (to feed our unsustainable appetite for “growth”) that otherwise provide a buffer against disease.

And as we now know, when health-care systems are struggling to manage a crisis like COVID, many other health problems get ignored, leading to worsening health outcomes from other causes.

Read more: Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics

A recent analysis of Australian policy reveals little recognition at the Commonwealth level of the health impacts of climate change. Policy action is only just getting under way at state and territory level.

The federal government’s net zero by 2050 pamphlet, The Australian Way, doesn’t address the risks and opportunities for the health sector, despite its significant contribution to national emissions. This emission contribution is largely from public and private hospitals, which have huge energy demands, largely met by coal-powered electricity. Also, the production of pharmaceuticals is extremely energy intensive.

Australia’s failure to address the health impacts of climate change in its climate plan recently scored it 0/15 compared to other countries by the Global Climate and Health Alliance ahead of COP26.

The Australian government had not integrated health into its climate policies on any of the five measures: health impacts, health in adaptation measures, health co-benefits, economics and finance, or overall.

Australia’s update to the National Climate Resilience and Climate Adaptation Strategy (released quietly, ahead of COP26) mentions health and well-being. But it firmly hands responsibility to state, territory and local governments.

So far, the Queensland government has led the way. It developed a Human Health and Wellbeing Climate Adaptation Plan in 2018, offering high level guidance for managing the health risks of climate change and realising the benefits of climate action.

Victoria recently released a draft Health and Human Services Adaptation Action Plan, as part of its commitments under the state’s Climate Change Act.

In Western Australia, a year-long Climate and Health Inquiry led to a comprehensive 2020 report. Climate action is necessary, the McGowan government said, “for health system sustainability and [because] the benefits of change far outweigh costs when health is factored in”. Implementation is yet to commence.

New South Wales supports human health and social impact research at the University of Sydney, but is yet to release an adaptation plan or strategy.

Other states have announced initiatives but no state-wide plans, yet.

Read more: Australia needs a national approach to combat the health effects of climate change

Change from the ground up

Despite an absence of guiding policy, the vast majority of public hospitals and health services in Australia have joined Global Green and Healthy Hospitals. This is an international network of health institutions working to reduce their carbon and environmental footprint. Queensland Health, Victorian Department of Health and the ACT Health Directorate are also members.

Without the national coordination called for by health groups, this could lead to a fragmented approach, limit effective adaptation and likely drive up costs.

Last week, over 50 health groups offered over 175 recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in ways that protect and promote health and well-being. They include legislating a 75% cut in emissions by 2030, rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and transport, and decarbonising health care by 2035.

While federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the federal government’s plan is “good for health”, health stakeholders are less convinced.

Most countries now have national climate and health plans.

A leadership vacuum

The recent COP26 Health Roundtable for Australian, New Zealand and Fiji health ministries was attended by seven of the eight states and territories – Tasmania and the federal government didn’t attend.

The roundtable aimed to encourage national and subnational governments to make commitments to developing climate-health adaptation plans and low carbon and sustainable health care.

Fiji has made such commitments, which will be announced in Glasgow by World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus on November 9. But none of Australia’s state, territory or national representatives have yet made the pledge.

The global health community is watching closely. Some 450 organisations, representing 45 million health workers in 102 countries, signed a letter sent to all national leaders attending COP26 calling for health to be included in all national climate plans.

The WHO has released a report, The Health Argument for Climate Action, with a set of ten priority actions for governments.

These include:

  • aligning climate and public health commitments in their COVID recovery plans

  • putting health at the centre of the global climate talks

  • and prioritising climate interventions that deliver the largest health, social and economic gains.

We hope the Australian government, and all leaders in Glasgow, are listening.

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