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Planetary Health inquiry launched

23 November 2018

The Environmental Audit Committee launches an inquiry into Planetary Health. The concept of planetary health is based on the understanding that human health and human civilisation depend on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems. However, natural systems are being degraded to an extent unprecedented in human history (The Lancet, July 2015).

The Committee will investigate the effect of environmental damage and climate change on health. The inquiry will examine this emerging field, including the use of technology to mitigate risks, global interdisciplinary collaborations, and action taken by the UK Government.

The Committee is particularly interested in the risks relating to nutrition for UK and global human populations.

Chair's comments

Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said:

“Human beings do not exist in a vacuum: we depend on this planet for everything. Climate change is already damaging the health of millions of people. Our cities are polluted, there are threats to our food supply, and deaths from heatwaves, wildfires, and cold snaps. We are also concerned about non-communicable diseases like obesity, mental health problems and cancer. Pesticides and herbicides threaten pollinators, and if this generation fails to take this issue seriously the damage to our food-chain could be widespread. Our inquiry will look at the effect of environmental damage and climate change on human health.”

What is planetary health and why is it important?

Humans live longer, healthier lives than ever before as a result of advances in food production, public health and access to medicines.  But the systems that support human life rely on a healthy global natural environment.

The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health provides an explanation of planetary health:

“Improvements to health have come from advancements in public health and medicine, as well as from agriculture and industry. However, this progress often comes at a cost. Human activities have caused global environmental change – not only do we pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink directly, but greenhouse gas emissions are changing the world's climate. This has knock-on effects for our health and society. The World Health Organization estimates that 25% of death and disease globally, and nearly 35% in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, is linked to environmental hazards.”

The effect on human health is wide-ranging and includes the following areas (amongst others): malnutrition and food security, air pollution inducing cardiorespiratory illnesses and other diseases; extreme-weather related deaths; mental health.

Crops, nutrition and non-communicable diseases

Researchers have found that climate change and environmental deterioration have led to significant impacts on the nutritional value of food. The Planetary Health Alliance wrote that “humanity is enormously vulnerable to health impacts from environmental change mediated through changing access to nutrition”.

As well as international rises in malnutrition, inadequate access to sufficiently nutritious food items may contribute to a rise in non-communicable diseases such as obesity. Increases in the cost of fruit and vegetables may lead to healthy foods becoming unaffordable to vast numbers of the global population.

The risk to food prices as a result of the effect of climate changes has been known to the UK Government for many years. The Food Matters report, published by the Cabinet Office in July 2008, recognised that the food system faces four challenges relating to:

  • Economics and equity: how to provide people with affordable food;
  • Health: how to prevent avoidable illnesses and deaths in the UK caused by poor diets;
  • Safety: how to ensure the food we eat in the UK is safe; and
  • Environmental protection: how to reduce the environmental impacts of UK food production.

The UK was among the 196 countries which signed up to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, which aims to limit global temperature rises to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

The IPCC's report in October 2018 highlighted the benefits of keeping temperature rises to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. UK agriculture is responsible for around one tenth of the UK's carbon emissions, but emissions from agriculture have not fallen in a decade. The UK faces a challenge in finding a way to promote sustainable healthy diets.

In the National Adaptation Programme and the Third Strategy for Climate Adaptation Reporting, it is noted that “[changes] may be needed to the crops grown, taking advantage of resource efficiencies, ensuring that the knowledge gained from R&D is transferred to changes on the ground, and taking up new technologies”.

Terms of reference:

The Committee invites written submissions on some or all of the following points by Friday 21st December 2018.

Global issues

1. What are the threats to global planetary health, and what do they mean for public health, including diets, in the UK?

2. What action is being taken internationally to tackle these threats? Could the UK be doing more to drive international action? What opportunities are there for the Government to promote good planetary health in forthcoming international summits or agreements?

3. Which countries have been effective at addressing the threats to planetary health, and how?

Government action

4. What actions ought the UK Government to take to mitigate the risks to human health from climate change?

5. How effective are Government strategies on climate change, such as National Adaptation Programme and the Third Strategy for Climate Adaptation Reporting, in recognising and putting in place plans of action to tackle negative consequences of planetary health?

6. What should the Government do to address the risks the UK faces from threats to planetary health?

7. What should the Government do to drive private sector innovations and technologies that promote planetary health?

Crops and nutrition

8. How might crops (produced both globally and in the UK) be affected by climate change?

9. What risks relating to nutrition for UK and global human populations might there be as a result of climate change? In particular, how might planetary health affect non-communicable diseases, such as obesity?

10. What steps should the UK Government take to protect crops and food products from the effects of climate change? What steps should the Government take to reduce the impact of climate change on non-communicable diseases such as obesity?

11. What is the relationship between the use of agricultural chemicals and biodiversity loss in the UK?

12. What are the risks to the UK of declines in pollinator populations?

Details on how to submit written evidence can be found here.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto