Making room for public health at COP26

Organizers of COP26 in Scotland these last two weeks claimed that public health was a priority issue, but when looking at the conference’s schedule, there was no day dedicated to the issue. 

Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic that is still raging on, particularly in Europe, this omission feels like a massive oversight. How could COP26 delegates and the United Nations claim to place health as a focus of the discussion,yet fail to establish a day dedicated to pressing health concerns around the world? 

While it might have looked like the conference initially ignored the intersection of climate change and health, the COP26 Health Program and the 2021 Global Conference on Health and Climate Change sought to remedy this mistake and bring the discussion of health back to Glasgow. 

Considered to be one of the most important conferences of the year, COP26 brought together 25,000 delegates and world leaders to address the urgent need for global climate action. For the two weeks of the conference, daily topics were selected in order to focus discussions on issues related to and impacted by climate change. For the first week, the Presidency Program outlined daily topics like finance, energy, youth and public empowerment and nature, while week two topics included adaptation, loss, & damage, gender, science, transport and cities, regions and built environment. These issues are certainly crucial, but the failure to include health on the list is a glaring oversight. 

There was no daily topic centered around health, but health and climate change go hand in hand and, if anything, deserve more than just one day at COP26. The impacts of climate change are substantial and there are myriad climate-related health concerns. This gap is where the COP26 Health Program and the 2021 Global Conference on Health and Climate Change came into play.

The development of the COP26 Health Program reinforces the need to consider the physiological and mental impacts of climate change. Under assistance from the World Health Organization and Health Care Without Harm, this program was meant to complement COP26 and bring extra attention to health as part of the climate crisis. 

Countries declared a commitment to two initiatives in order to become a part of the COP26 Health Program. The first, the Climate Resilient Health Systems initiative, requests countries conduct vulnerability and adaptation assessments, commit to constructing a national development plan and use the results to qualify for climate-related funding. 

The final commitment for countries in the COP26 Health Program was the Sustainable Low Carbon Health Systems initiative. It insists that countries set a target date to achieve health system net-zero emissions by 2050, evaluate the current status on greenhouse gas emissions to set a baseline and establish the roadmap needed in order to reach the 2050 goal. 

This separate program, while tied to COP26, allows the issue of climate change and health to have its own spotlight. Countries committed to the program had the opportunity to announce their pledge on Nov. 9 using the COP26 platform, further elevating the advancements made. Not only this, but the program opens the door for future possibilities to bring attention to health and climate change as interconnected issues facing the international community.  

The 2021 Global Conference on Health and Climate Change occurred on Nov. 6, during the middle of COP26. This conference was built on the COP26 Health Program and special report, “The Health Argument for Climate Action.” The conference theme on a healthy and green recovery from COVID-19 focused this event on the global health situation and how to move forward sustainably. While the event was supported by COP26 and its delegates, the WHO was the driving force behind the conference. 

The one-day event was filled with keynote speakers from world leaders and solutions on how to advance health in the climate change context. The Global Conference of Health and Climate Change was open to anyone, and the hybrid setup that mixes virtual and in-person events made it accessible for those near and far Glasgow, as did the free entrance. In spite of that, this conference didn’t see even close to the same attention as COP26 is receiving, which is dominating headlines as the preeminent international summit this month.

Up until Nov. 9, the junction of health and climate change may not have received the attention it deserves, as both the COP26 Health Program and the global conference failed to generate as much excitement as the flashier events in Glasgow. The newly developed program and conference cannot compete with COP26 for headlines but that was not necessarily the goal . 

Ultimately, health and climate change will always intersect, and while health deserves more attention beyond being relegated to a second-class focus, the inclusion of health programs adjacent to COP26 is a small but promising step in the right direction. 

Additional Reading

Watch the 2021 Global Conference on Health and Climate Change

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