The climate summit’s first Health Day points to what needs to change in NZ

At COP28, the impact of climate change on human health will be highlighted for the first time.

The latest Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is currently underway in Dubai. It includes a Day dedicated to Human Health and Climate Action.

Health Day is an important event. Climate policy should put health at its center. Nations cannot progress if their populations are not healthy. Climate change also poses a serious threat to good health.

Over the last 20 years, heat-related deaths have increased by 70% in the world. The rising temperatures, the altered rainfall patterns, and the displacement of millions of people due to floods and fires can increase the spread of significant infectious diseases such as cholera and dengue.

In New Zealand, extreme floods in Hawkes Bay & Tairawhiti in early 2023 cut thousands off from essential supplies. Many people were trapped inside homes that couldn’t be repaired. Eleven people drowned and were injured.

What is the probability that this unusually heavy rainfall was caused by climate change? According to a report led by Luke Harrington of the University of Waikato, 75% of these events are likely due to climate change. As extreme weather events become more common, it is more important to address the health consequences.

Hawkes Bay flooding after Cyclone Gabrielle early in 2023, which caused 11 deaths. Getty Images

Healthy adaptations

The health of the climate has been a marginal issue for many years. Loss and damage to land and property have been the focus of climate negotiations.

When global climate funds are allocated, health programs rarely come first. It’s As disasters and heat intensify, can the world meet the urgency of the moment at the COP28 climate talks?

These so-called “co-benefits” to human health may be greater than the cost of the climate interventions that enable them. One study of project options to reduce global air pollution, for example, found the median value of health co-benefits was roughly double the median cost of the project.

Research has found that the health benefits of a bike infrastructure in Auckland, based on best practices, would be 10-25 times higher than their costs.

They can also reduce food bills by up to a third, according to an Oxford University study. According to an Oxford University study, they can reduce food costs by as much as a third.

The health benefits of improved bike infrastructure in Auckland are 10-25 times higher than the costs. Getty Images

Climate and Health Strategy

Health Day is a great opportunity to highlight these connections and benefits. The event will bring in many senior politicians who would not normally attend the negotiations.

The platform also allows governments, international funding agencies, and the private sector to showcase their initiatives and gain support.

Read more: COP28: Earth’s frozen zones are in trouble – we’re already seeing the consequences.

The program includes presentations on green healthcare, case studies in building health resilience, best-practice approaches to measuring the burden of disease due to climate change, and health funding priorities for agencies such as the Global Climate Fund.

In one session, “progress and new commitments will be showcased to capture the immense health benefits of climate-mitigation policies.” The closing session “will set out a road map and opportunities for action.”

Unfortunately, Health Minister Shane Reti won’t be there. The program also suggests a basis for a New Zealand climate and health policy. It is unclear what the new government will do to replace climate-related policies that the previous administration implemented.

How will local governments maintain safe water supplies without the Three Waters project? Remember that the 2016 outbreak of campylobacteriosis, the largest mass poisoning ever in New Zealand, was due to heavy rains washing sheep feces in an unprotected supply.

Read more: We’re burning too much fossil fuel to fix by planting trees – making ‘net zero’ emissions impossible with offsets.

Painstaking reforms to the Resource Management Act (which everyone agrees is cumbersome and out of time) will be shelved under the National-Act coalition agreement. This has serious climate health implications.

When urban density is done right, it can reduce commute times, cut greenhouse gas emissions, improve health through cleaner air, and increase physical activity. This type of large-scale land use change requires legislation that is fit for purpose.

According to a poll conducted recently, two-thirds of New Zealanders anticipate severe climate impacts on their region over the next decade. These include floods and forest fires. How will New Zealand cope when the results pile up?

The Health Day at COP28 is a good example of what’s needed. Climate policy must put health at the center. Tedros Ghebreyesus is the director-general of the World Health Organization.


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