A reflection from WorldGBC’s webinar on the health impacts of climate change — by Sara Kawamura, Better Places for People Project Officer, WorldGBC.
Climate change affects everyone, everywhere. It is currently responsible for an estimated 150,000 deaths per year, which is expected to double by 2030, and direct damage costs to health are estimated to reach $2-4 billion per year by 2030 (1).
Worryingly, achieving the Paris Agreement goals to limit global warming to well below 2.0 degrees (ideally 1.5 degrees) compared to pre-industrial levels, is an extreme challenge, as the world has already experienced warming averaging at 1.2 degrees (2). This has presented amplified weather extremes, with natural disasters tripling over the last decade, in addition to increased magnitude and frequencies of floods, hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires (3).
Significant changes in ecosystems are also being observed due to climate change, bringing about harsh degradation of land to more than 100 countries worldwide, with more than 90% of the Earth’s land expected to degrade by the year 2050, compared to the 75% already seen today.
This environmental destruction and warming of the planet is likely to lead to a rapid spread of human disease through animals and organisms that are increasingly seen to look for shelter closer to human civilisation (4). The impacts of these disasters create severe health implications, such as infectious, air-borne diseases (including respiratory), and other vector-borne diseases that are already seen to cross countries and continents.
How can we protect health from the impacts of climate change?
Despite such challenges, there is a marginal window for optimism. The built environment offers opportunities to limit climate change, while enhancing the health and wellbeing of populations worldwide to tackle and minimise the threats that could lie ahead.
Nathalie Roebbel, Head of Urban Health, World Health Organisation (WHO), said:
“We need to make sure that the way we shape the urban environment is going to protect and promote people’s health. The built environment and housing has always been crucial as a determinant of health and wellbeing and health equity. It is fundamental that investments are made in the housing sector at the urban level to address climate change and health as a public health measure.”
With the impacts of climate change, it is imperative that resilience is considered on a localised level.
Rayya Jawhar, Middle Eastern Sustainability Team Lead, Buro Happold, said:
“It’s important to always define resilience against how we are going to be affected. Before developing solutions that could align to different regions, we should all start mapping and modelling future scenarios and understand what we are going to be affected by and to what extent. This will allow us to come up with the most applicable solutions per region in a context specific manner. It is important to talk and think about climate change and climate action with social justice, and treat them hand in hand.”
In order to tackle climate change, enhancing collaboration and calls to action are key.
Christine Loh, Chief Development Strategist, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said:
“What we need to do is to ask ourselves, what are the arrangements for decision making that will help generate the kind of discussion that is truly integrated internally and externally with communities, what are the risks in your particular community, and are we meeting them in a diverse way by looking across our social economic sector? I hope the institutions of the world will really look at cooperation at the high level, but we must also collaborate with each other across disciplines and across societies on the ground.”
This year is particularly crucial for the international climate action, certainly for the far-reaching consequences for the long-term health and resilience of communities and societies. During COP26 in November 2021, the WHO will be releasing a special report on climate change and health titled: ‘The health Argument for Climate Action’, aimed to place health and social justice as key considerations within policies to deal with the health urgency of tackling the climate crisis.
How can the built environment limit Climate Change implications?
In the present day, cities are consuming more than two-thirds of the world’s energy, with buildings responsible for 37% of global energy related carbon emissions (5). By the year 2050, 68% of the world’s population is predicted to live in urban areas, estimated at almost 4.2 billion additional people, nearly doubling the urban population in comparison to what we see today (6). Thus, it is fundamental for the building industry to consider mitigation, adaptation and resilience for all people through the built environment, with some specific interventions to enhance and protect health in the built environment.
Clay Nesler, Global Lead, Buildings, World Resources Institute, said:
“What resilience and adaptation really is in the built environment, is responding to a variety of critical situations, ranging from extreme temperatures of heat and cold. Two things we can do around the world is shift from energy to carbon, and let’s really include the social cost involved in these decisions and drive harder to zero.”
Kellie Ballew, Vice President of Global Sustainability, Shaw Contract, said:
“From a design intervention stand point of what can be done at a building level to incorporate that resilience as it relates to the building itself, is on-site renewables, HVAC systems, green roofs, etc. but also thinking more clearly about the occupant in that space and how it support their health and wellbeing, because when they are healthy, when that occupant is experiencing safety and health and wellbeing, then that’s where resilience comes in, and that’s where the adaptation is.”
Philippa Gill, Director, Evora Global, said:
“The biggest challenge at the moment in considering both mitigation and adaptation for new and existing buildings, is the market structure. The market is definitely changing, and as the financial consequence of climate risk and post COVID-19 empty building becomes a reality, it is producing a very positive storm in a sense that people are very mindful of on-coming legislations. In order to get people back into the buildings, they have to make them into buildings that people want to be in, and there is the opportunity.”
Years of hard-won lessons on disaster preparedness may minimise threats, but with the majority of the countries vulnerable to climate change, it is now firmly ingrained in the industry’s lexicon. This underscores the need for a sustainable built environment that could withstand future global health impacts – through adaptation, responding to climate change and bringing ideas to action,resilience, and building capacity for recovery and transformation. Despite the challenges, there are many opportunities for action. COP26 is a great opportunity to fast-track building policies and interventions, such as transitioning to clean cooking, heating, and technology, but also improving energy insulation and related topics that would pose a solution to the discussion.
For an in-depth conversation, view our Better Places for People Webinar on “The Health Impacts of Climate Change”
Learn how the WorldGBC is addressing climate change, resilience, and adaptation through the Health and Wellbeing Framework.
- Vaughan A. How deadly disease outbreaks could worsen as the climate changes. In 2019. Available from: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2219981-how-deadly-disease-outbreaks-could-worsen-as-the-climate-changes/
- UN. The Paris Agreement. In 2015. Available from: https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement
- Kickbusch I. The political determinants of health–10 years on. BMJ. 2015 Jan 8;350(jan08 2):h81–h81.
- Nunez C. Desertification, explained. In National Geographic; 2019. Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/desertification
- WorldGBC. Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront [Internet]. (Embodied carbon call to action report). Available from: https://worldgbc.org/embodied-carbon
- UN Department for Economic Affairs. 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says the UN. In New York; 2018. Available from: https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html