Building transport systems that protect health and climate

by Alison Doig (Director, Health and Climate Network) and Karl Peet (Senior Adviser, SLOCAT Partnership)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) convenes health ministries from around the world at the 75th annual World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva this week. Three-quarters of a century on, it’s worth reflecting on why the WHA matters for sustainable transport – specifically, why should health ministers be concerned with what happens in their countries’ transport sectors? 

The way that societies organise systems of transport and mobility has a decisive impact on public health, and thus transport is closely tied to the final pillar of the WHA’s ‘Triple Billion’ dashboard for global health, which reads, ‘One billion more people enjoying better health and well-being.’  While modern transport systems can clearly contribute to ill health – including through air pollution; traffic injuries and deaths; and health risks from physical inactivity – the health benefits of sustainable, active and low carbon transport cannot be overestimated.  Reshaping transport and mobility with a focus on health can dramatically reduce negative impacts, while increasing convenient, affordable access to essential goods and services, and protecting the climate.

Among the focus topics of this year’s WHA is overcoming the global obesity epidemic. The WHO estimates that one in four adults and four in five adolescents are not sufficiently active, due in part to urban and transport infrastructure that prioritises vehicles, not people. Many countries are currently facing health challenges associated with reduced physical activity, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. A shift to sustainable, active transport through walking, cycling and public transport is thus critical to meet both climate targets and health objectives.

What is not emphasised in this year’s WHA are the direct health health impacts of climate change.  UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “an atlas of human suffering’, with projections of disease, migration, food and water insecurity, and extreme heat.  The climate emergency is thus also a health emergency, and transport accounts for 24% of direct CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. Conversely, climate solutions are also health solutions, and scaling up sustainable, low carbon transport and active mobility can reduce many negative health impacts of climate change and increase the direct health benefits of more active lifestyles and cleaner urban air.

In response to this growing climate threat, SLOCAT and the Health and Climate Network (HCN) have been working to highlight the nexus between transport, climate and health, and to call for practical and policy solutions for cities and countries on the global stage.  The infographic  Transport Systems that Protect Health and Climate illustrates trends for improving public health; post-pandemic uncertainties with health implications; and actions to deliver healthy low carbon transport systems.  For practitioners looking for practical tools to implement healthy transport systems we have produced a knowledge base (and user guide) to help prioritise packages of transport policies that contribute to health and climate objectives. The knowledge base complements resources from other HCN members – including the WHO Health economic assessment tool (HEAT) for cycling and walking and the Global Climate and Health Alliance Healthy NDCs Scorecard – to assess policy options for health, transport and climate.

Recently HCN and SLOCAT built further momentum by convening 20 experts from the areas of transport, health, cities, and food systems in an online workshop to create structured, interactive dialogue among varied stakeholders. The dialogue explored the need for more concerted engagement in global and regional processes among organisations working in these areas, to raise awareness and increase collaboration in 2022 and 2023, including through the WHA.

HCN SLOCAT Infographic_2021.10.09

While neither transport nor climate change is explicit in this year’s WHA agenda, human health will be a central topic in global environment events in the weeks following the WHA.  The Stockholm+50 Summit will commemorate the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, and will include a Pre-Summit on the Global Just Transition from Fossil Fuels, thus uniting health, climate and transport and other sectors in a call for urgent action on this topic.  And the UNFCCC 2022 Bonn Climate Change Conference will kick off the first Global Stocktake to measure progress toward Paris Agreement commitments.  The Stocktake will go beyond national-level commitments to engage non-state actors in raising mitigation ambition and examining ground-level implementation realities across sectors including transport and health. 

Health has gained prominence in the UNFCCC process leading up to Bonn.  At COP26, over 600 organisations – representing 46 million nurses, doctors and health workers – signed on to the Healthy Climate Prescription letter, which calls for countries to prioritise health outcomes in delivering Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs). COP27 must build on this momentum by bringing further attention to this cause through discussions and commitments during the conference and mainstreaming health and transport goals in NDCs and Long Term Strategies. 

In the future, it is essential that health be more closely tied to climate and transport action, and HCN and SLOCAT are eager to continue cooperation with key partners to drive action on health, transport and climate in the months leading up to the 76th World Health Assembly. Next year’s WHA will put the spotlight on the health implications of air pollution, and the transport sector is responsible for about 20% of emissions of small particulates, which cause more than four million premature deaths per year and increase risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.  Fossil fuel phaseout should thus be a growing nexus of action for HCN and SLOCAT until subsidies for dirty fuels are a thing of the past, and populations around the world are breathing cleaner air. 

Alison Doig, Director, Health and Climate Network
Alison Doig has worked for more than 25 years in the international development and environment sectors, with specialisation in climate policy and clean energy. She is an experienced and effective policy expert and advocate, including prioritising health in climate negotiations, climate action in the SDGs and a shift towards investment in low-carbon energy for all.

Karl Peet, Senior Adviser, SLOCAT Partnership
Karl Peet oversees and provides strategic direction for SLOCAT research and knowledge development activities to support promotion of sustainable transport in global policies on climate change and sustainable development. Karl focuses chiefly on SLOCAT’s Transport and Climate Change Global Status report; the organisation’s work in the transport-health and transport-energy nexuses, and transport resilience issues.