The climate crisis is a health crisis and the LAC health sector is meeting the challenge

By Andrea Hurtado Epstein, Climate Program Manager for Latin America | October 27, 2023

“Climate change is one of our biggest health threats – humanity faces a staggering toll unless we act”, warns a recently published op-ed co-authored by the COP28 President, the Director General of the World Health Organization and the Special Envoy for Climate Change and Health. After years of fighting a devastating pandemic, the health sector worldwide – but especially in the Global South – is still struggling to recover, and make up for profound setbacks in its efforts to achieve Universal Health Coverage and other key global health commitments. But there has been no respite for health systems and facilities, as they have simultaneously been faced with a series of unprecedented climate impacts, ever increasing in frequency and severity. The WHO estimates that more than 12.5 million people die each year from diseases associated with environmental hazards, including those related to climate change. That is one in every four deaths. It has never been clearer that the climate crisis is a health crisis, one that will dwarf what we saw with COVID-19.

Fortunately, the health community is rising up to the challenge. Over the past few years, the global movement for climate and health justice has achieved significant wins. COP26 became the first to identify health as a priority of the Presidency, leading to the adoption of the COP26 Health Programme, launched jointly by the UK government, WHO and Race to Zero partner, Health Care Without Harm. Under this initiative, more than 75 countries have committed to developing climate-resilient, low-emissions and sustainable health systems, and WHO is supporting their implementation efforts through the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATACH), established in June 2022. These, and many other achievements, provide evidence of a growing momentum for healthcare climate action.

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have been an integral part of this movement. As the most unequal region in the world, the compounding social, climate and health challenges it faces require increasingly complex solutions. Nonetheless, in the midst of the pandemic, 10 LAC countries joined the COP26 Health Programme (Argentina, Bahamas, Belize, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Panama and Peru), with two more joining since (Brazil and Ecuador).

Other policy developments in the region are also worth noting. For example, in the past few years Colombia has committed to develop a Comprehensive Climate Management Plan for the health sector (with HCWH proudly supporting the development of its mitigation component); Chile has enacted a national climate change law that mandates the adoption of sectoral plans for mitigation and adaptation, including the health sector in both; and Argentina became the first country to include healthcare decarbonization measures in its NDC, launched the first health sector project funded by the GCF Readiness program, and adopted a National Strategy on Climate Change and Health. Innovative policy instruments at the regional level have also emerged with the support of the Pan-American Health Organization, including the Caribbean Action Plan on Health and Climate Change, the Andean Climate Change and Health Plan 2020-2025, and more recently, the Mercosur Strategy on Climate Change and Health.

Health systems and facilities have not been the exception in this wave of commitments. The health sector is putting the mandate to “First, do no harm” to action and mobilizing to strengthen its climate resilience and significantly reduce its carbon footprint, which currently stands at almost 5 percent of global net GHG emissions. As announced in the run up to COP26, hospitals and health centres from all over the world have joined the Race to Zero through HCWH’s Health Care Climate Challenge, committing to reach net zero emissions by 2050 in alignment with the Paris Agreement. So far, more than 70 healthcare institutions representing the interests of over 14,000 hospitals and health centers in 26 countries have joined the Race to Zero.

There are 21 members in the LAC region, and they are tackling the net zero challenge in a variety of ways. Public health systems such as the Valdivia Health Service in Chile and the Brazilian public health services managed by Associação Paulista para o Desenvolvimento da Medicina (SPDM) have improved their carbon footprint measurement and monitoring processes, and used them to inform strategic interventions leading to substantial emissions reductions. Private institutions have also made great progress through innovation, from the adoption of new technologies and procedures to reduce emissions from anesthetic gasses at Hospital Clínica Bíblica in Costa Rica, to the construction of a drying station that uses passive solar architecture and air fusion by displacement technology at Hospital San Rafael de Pasto in Colombia, significantly decreasing the consumption of fuel, electricity and water.

The wealth of experiences from healthcare Race to Zero members has paved the way for a global community of practice, facilitated by HCWH through the Health Care Climate Learning Initiative. Through a series of regional workshops (four of which were held in the LAC region), a Global Gathering and a number of case studies submitted by the members, the initiative produced a guidance document on healthcare climate action and will continue to encourage the exchange of best practices and lessons learned. This is the health sector’s acknowledgment that together we can go much further.

We have a highly ambitious goal: to secure global health equity, while profoundly transforming the way we deliver healthcare so that it simultaneously strengthens its climate resilience, reaches net zero emissions and boosts pandemic preparedness. This year we have a unique window of opportunity to consolidate these foundations and enter a great-leap-forward phase: COP28 will be the first to have an official Health Day in the Presidency program, and a Ministerial Meeting has been convened to adopt a Declaration on Climate and Health. We must make sure that this COP’s spotlight on health translates into substantive agreements, and above all, that all stakeholders are walking the talk when it comes to implementation. The LAC region is willing and ready to take the next step, but it can only go so far without international finance and support. Let this be a global call for ambitious action and solidarity, for healthy people on a healthy planet.

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