The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) saw important advances on the green transition. Still, it also helped shape the climate agenda in other ways, including recognizing health policy as a critical area to address regarding climate change. A health day was recognized for the first time, with leaders emphasizing the importance of protecting people from the impact of climate change on health and health services and minimizing the health sector’s carbon footprint. In this post, we share some key takeaways from these discussions.
Climate change is one of the strongest health threats of the century. A recent IDB policy brief outlined the effect of climate change on health with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean and what should be done to minimize impacts while reducing the health sector’s carbon footprint.
Health and climate change challenges
Climate change poses three main challenges for the healthcare system. The first challenge is responding to its effects on the population’s health. Climate change drives storms, droughts, floods, wildfires, and heat waves that directly cause injuries, respiratory diseases, vector-borne diseases, deterioration of chronic conditions, and mental health problems, among other health issues. Climate affects air, soil, and water pollution levels, indirectly impacting people’s health.
It has been estimated that there were more than 200,000 excess deaths in the region related to extreme temperatures from 2000 to 2019; additionally, some scientists estimate that the climate crisis may cause 250,000 additional annual deaths worldwide between 2030 and 2050. According to the World Meteorological Organization, extreme climate events have surged fivefold from 1970 to 2019, with our region being especially vulnerable, having experienced 1,347 disasters between 2000 and 2022 (91% of them attributed to climate change). In other words, climate change is jeopardizing health and well-being, and the threat is especially severe among the most vulnerable groups: rural and indigenous communities, children and the elderly, women, ethnic minorities, and those with disabilities.
The second challenge is keeping health services operational under extreme weather events, which can damage facilities and cause service disruptions. According to ECLAC, from 2007 to 2017, around 24 million people in the region went without medical care for months due to these extreme events. At the IDB Group, our health infrastructure investments undergo a thorough adaptation analysis to ensure that facilities and teams can withstand and continue to operate under extreme weather events.
During COP28, we co-hosted a panel discussion with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and Ministers of Health from Latin America and the Caribbean to discuss how to improve the resilience of health systems. PAHO presented a beneficial operational framework to build a climate-resilient health system that can reduce the effects of climate change and keep healthcare services functional even under extreme conditions. The six areas of this framework include (i) health information systems that bolster health intelligence to understand the effects of climate change on health, conduct long-term research, and provide early warnings; (ii) enhancing service delivery with an increased capacity to respond to the effects of climate change (management of environmental determinants of health, climate-informed health programs and emergency preparedness and management); (iii) building climate-resilient and sustainable medical products, technologies and infrastructure; (iv) increasing the healthcare workforce’s climate-resiliency; (v) climate and health financing; and (vi) stronger leadership and governance in the climate change response.
A key takeaway from this discussion is that all countries in the region should prioritize strengthening or developing robust national health adaptation and mitigation plans that are operational and cost-effective. Some countries have already done so, others are in the process, and quite a few still need to start.
The third challenge is reducing the carbon footprint of the healthcare sector itself. According to a recent study by Health Care Without Harm, the sector is responsible for 4.4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
IDB Group actions to address climate change
The IDB Group supports countries’ mitigation efforts in health, focusing on four areas and first, promoting sustainable green-building methods to cut emissions and costs during construction, operation, and maintenance. Second, procurement of low-energy medical equipment. Third, optimization of support services (such as blood banks and laboratories) and improving the logistical efficiency of health service operations; and fourth, expanding digital health services.
We stand ready to collaborate with partners and countries to address these challenges: collaboration is a core value. As part of the Development Bank Working Group for Climate-Health Finance, the IDB fully endorses the Joint Roadmap for Action and works with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to address the direct health impacts of climate change.
COP28 saw a healthy discussion regarding the health sector in the climate agenda. Now, we all need to do our part to ensure a resilient and sustainable future for healthcare systems and to promote co-benefits of cross-sector interventions, so we are ready to protect people’s health in the face of climate change: the moment to act is now.