COP28: global health & climate change policy

Clouds above planet earth horizon


As the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) in Dubai draws to a close, Tom Micklem, Senior Account Executive at Incisive Health, discusses the summit’s impact on global health.

Climate change has long been a contentious issue, making the annual COP conference a lively affair, with plenty for media outlets across the globe to report on. This year saw comments made by Sultan Al Jaber, the President of COP28, hit the headlines, in which he suggested that there is “no science” behind the claim that a phase out of fossil fuels is necessary to restrict global heating to 1.5C – which somewhat overshadowed the more positive developments, including on health.

How climate change affects health?

Described as “the greatest threat to human health”, climate change can impact health directly and indirectly.

  • Extreme weather events can cause illness, injury or mortality, as well as poorer mental health.

  • Drought or flooding may lead to the disruption of food systems, causing malnutrition.

  • Increasing prevalence of vector borne diseases has accompanied increased global temperatures.

  • Heightened air pollution is associated with increased prevalence of respiratory illnesses, while healthcare systems and facilities themselves may be impacted directly, limiting the ability for countries around the world to achieve universal healthcare. Recent data suggests 9 million people died this year as a consequence of exposure to air pollution alone.

It is therefore surprising that health has never before featured as a prominent part of the COP programme.

A pivotal moment

COP28 was different. This year (2023) saw the very first and long-awaited “Health Day”, representing a pivotal moment in the conference’s history – the first time the health community was formally included in the official discussions about climate action.

The political Declaration on Climate Change and Health, signed by 124 countries (but notably not India) aims to  “put health at the heart of climate action and accelerate the development of climate-resilient, sustainable and equitable health systems”. 

Beyond the political declarations, other commitments for climate & health included a landmark pledge at the Reaching the Last Mile forum of $777.2 million USD, committed by global donors to the control, elimination and eradication of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) – the prevalence of which is likely to increase with increasing global temperatures. Disease vectors such as mosquitoes are now able to survive in new habitats due to rising global temperatures, allowing NTDs to spread to previously unaffected regions – demonstrated by a report published in the United Kingdom this week warning of the future risk of diseases such as dengue and chikungunya. 

There were of course critics of Health Day commitments. At a time where world leaders, such as Geert Wilders – who recently won the Dutch leadership election – express scepticism over climate change, the declaration was criticised for not going far enough. The lack of any mention of fossil fuels was disappointing for advocates. And although we saw a funding commitment of $1billion USD dedicated to adaptation and strategies to mitigate the impact of climate change on health (a step in the right direction!), experts deemed the funds insufficient – suggesting trillions of dollars would be required for implementation.

Paving the way for more action next year

On balance, Health Day at COP28 represented a significant policy ‘win’ which paves the way for further political action.

The G20 will offer a strong platform for leaders to continue this campaign. In August, the G20 health ministers made climate and health a priority issue and agreed to the first ever high-level principles for health and climate action. The Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took over the G20 presidency on the 1st December, has also made climate action a priority, with the motto 'building a just world and a sustainable planet'.

With a possible World Health Assembly resolution on climate & health in 2024, and more countries releasing health and climate strategies (with Australia most recently releasing their National Health and Climate Strategy on COP28 Health Day), we are bound to see a stronger push for policies aiming to decarbonise health systems, and reinforce the resilience of both health systems and communities to protect against the effects of climate change on health.

Although the commitments made at COP28 may not have gone far enough, they do represent a significant step forward. This may have been the first COP in 28 years to prioritise health, but we believe it will not be the last - we hope to see Health Day again at COP29 in Azerbaijan.