As guests of the planet, we human beings can thrive only if our host environment is thriving. We are strongly connected to it, more than we probably understand and more than we probably dare to admit.
Conversely, the ways humans treat the environment has clear negative effects on our health and well-being. With our actions, we harm the environment though pollution, or through land degradation, excessive use of water, and more.
The air we breathe, the water we drink or dive into, the biodiversity around us in terms of the food we eat and the broader environment around us can all have an impact on our health. It can also encourage the spread of diseases.
Indeed, the link between the environment and our health is so crucial that living in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment was recognized as a universal human right by the Human Rights Council in October 2021. Effective access to information and public participation remains critical in this respect, and I am proud of the 20 years of experience under the Aarhus Convention in putting the principles of environmental democracy into action. Recognising the clear value of this instrument, Parties established last autumn a binding rapid response mechanism to protect environmental defenders, who are under threat in many countries.
We are pushing our environment to its limits. The latest IPCC report released this week indicated that carbon emissions from 2010-2019 have never been higher in human history. It is proof that the world is on a fast track to disaster, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned, with scientists arguing that it’s ‘now or never’ to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Put another way, inaction on the climate crisis risks not just increasing health risks, but making our planet uninhabitable.
We already experience acutely the effects of human mistreatment of the environment on our health. WHO estimates that more than 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes, while 7 million deaths – roughly equivalent to the population of Bulgaria – are attributable to air pollution alone, making it the deadliest environmental health threat. Globally, over 90 per cent of people breathe unhealthy air resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. In the UNECE region, countries have worked together for over 40 years to improve air quality in the framework of the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (Air Convention). This cooperation has led to cleaner air, healthier forest soils, increased life expectancy and 600,000 avoided premature deaths per year.
However, more needs to be done. Recent research under the Convention highlights that taking policy action to reduce air pollution is a wise economic investment, as benefits (avoided health-care costs, ecosystem services, avoided crop damage, and higher labour productivity) largely outweigh costs for abatement measures. In nearly half of the countries in the region, the current monetary damage cost to health and ecosystems due to ambient air pollution corresponds to over 5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), while the average cost of an optimal air pollution strategy is estimated to be 0.01–0.02 per cent of GDP. In recovering better from the pandemic, we also need to address the pollution-climate-biodiversity crisis and make wise, future-proof investments that will allow us to thrive on our planet.
There is growing awareness among policymakers and the public about the interlinkages between the environment and health. Twenty years ago, UNECE and the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe (WHO/Europe) member States established the Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme (THE PEP) – a unique intersectoral and intergovernmental policy framework to promote mobility and transport strategies that integrate environmental and health concerns. The secretariat of the Programme is jointly provided by UNECE and WHO/Europe. At the Fifth High-level Meeting on Transport, Health and Environment last year, member States agreed on the Vienna Declaration and its vision of “clean, safe, healthy and inclusive mobility and transport for happiness and prosperity for all”. Health and environment are considered as equal components that need to be promoted in transport and mobility habits.
Furthermore, member States under THE PEP have recognized the new challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has created in transport, adopting Recommendations on Green and Healthy Sustainable Transport in our post-pandemic mobility. UNECE is also actively participating in the European Environment and Health Process, in which THE PEP and the Protocol on Water and Health play an important role.
The current COVID-19 crisis has also clearly demonstrated our dependence on the water sector for sanitation and hygiene as a key to prevent and fight infectious diseases. Undoubtedly, we need to take time, reflect and draw lessons from the current situation to reduce risks and build our resilience for future crises. Strict adherence to the guiding principle of Integrated Water Resource Management and Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEA), including the Water Convention will be key to achieving this, guided by the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals. The UNECE- WHO/Europe Protocol on Water and Health can serve as a unique framework to advance action on water, sanitation and hygiene, including by setting targets tailored to the needs and priorities of the pandemic response, which can be linked to preparedness, response and recovery programmes.
Countries can also make use of the Protocol tools to ensure equitable access to water and sanitation for the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, that were hit hardest by the pandemic. Adopting progressive, scientifically based water sanitation and health targets, along with their realistic implementation plans and attached funding, should be an immediate priority for all countries. Equitable access to WASH should be ensured to all populations, including most vulnerable and marginalised groups. Although we still have a long way to go to uphold the basic human right to water and sanitation for all, we know that action under the Protocol can deliver results: 19 million people in the Pan-European region gained access to a basic drinking water source following its entry into force.
These are just a few examples of the value of working together through an integrated approach to safeguarding our health and the environment. You can count on UNECE’s support for our strengthened efforts moving forward. “We have no planet B” has become a common call for action to protect our climate and the environment. We need to act, because our health depends on it! This is my message on today’s World Health Day.