Berlin, 14 June 2023. ‘Healthy living on a healthy planet’ – this is the title and vision of the WBGU’s new flagship report, which will be presented today to Steffi Lemke, Germany’s Federal Environment Minister, and Judith Pirscher, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In this report, the nine-member expert panel recommends nothing less than a fundamental rethinking of the way in which we deal with health. It is the only way the considerable improvements in health care that have been made in the past can be continued into the future. The COVID-19 pandemic, the massive increase in lifestyle diseases and the ever-more-apparent effects of climate change highlight the vulnerability of our societies – and our way of life is one of the causes of this vulnerability. Civilizational development has driven biodiversity loss, had a negative effect on the health of ecosystems, and is now jeopardizing human health. We are well on our way to destroying the preconditions for a healthy life for species and humanity and breaching planetary guard rails. This development can only be reversed by showing courage and taking action at all levels, from international forums to individual lifestyles. “Science is increasingly focusing on the interconnections between health and the state of our natural environment, which shows how important this issue is for the future of humanity and how urgent it is to take political action,” says Karen Pittel.
The consequences of climate change for human health worldwide cannot be ignored. In this sense, sustainability policy is also health policy. The WBGU specifically recommends extending existing monitoring and reporting obligations relating to health and health-risk factors to include environment-related, non-communicable diseases and the corresponding risk factors – for example within the framework of the European Health Union. Only in this way can appropriate preventive measures be developed. In this context, it is imperative to also measure and assess the ecological impacts of health systems. “The health sector has a considerable footprint worldwide, and more attention should definitely be paid to the role played by health systems in sustainability policy. Doctors and nursing staff enjoy people’s trust. They are influencers, in the best sense, for establishing a sustainable, resilient health system – on the one hand by championing such systems and showing how the climate targets can be implemented in the health sector; on the other hand through direct contact with patients, making them more aware of the new health hazards and motivating them to adopt health-promoting and environmentally aware behaviour,” explains Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann. It is time to reverse the current health-policy trend of primarily reacting to diseases rather than promoting prevention and people’s resilience and development potential. What is needed is a form of preventive healthcare that is focused on people’s environment and is also reflected in the financing of health systems.
“As a matter of urgency we must agree on a long-term form of joint governance for environmental and health protection beyond 2030. The Pandemic Treaty currently being negotiated within the WHO opens a window of opportunity for stronger substantive and institutional interactions with UNEP, FAO and WOAH, the World Organization for Animal Health,” says Sabine Schlacke. In its report, the WBGU formulates clear starting points for establishing such a form of urgency governance. One of the key elements is to establish the 2030 Agenda both nationally and inter- nationally as a mandate for action in order to realize the vision of ‘healthy living on a healthy planet’. The overall threat was deemed so urgent that the authors recommend the implementation of the ‘Health in All Policies’ approach and its continuous evaluation. This approach proposes integrating health concerns into the policies of all ministries and at all political levels, thus ensuring cooperation to sustain the natural life-support systems. The right to a healthy environment should be included as a human right in national constitutions and human rights catalogues, especially in Germany’s Basic Law and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. These elements of urgency governance should guide the German government’s actions, so that it advocates a leadership-focused, interlinked and implementation-oriented health and environmental policy in forums of the UN, the EU, the G7 and the G20, as well as vis-à-vis business and civil society.
Health requires targeted policies on what we eat, how we move and where we live. Using three concrete examples – nutrition, physical exercise and housing – the WBGU outlines the framework conditions that should be targeted in order to also realize the goal of ‘healthy living on a healthy planet’ in the living environments of all people. The elemental areas of human life should be designed in such a way that the trend of rising lifestyle diseases is reversed and, at the same time, climate- and environment-compatible lifestyles are made attractive.
Nutrition: a more plant-based diet for all could prevent eleven million premature deaths world- wide every year and greatly reduce the food system’s impact on the climate. Taxing and labelling unhealthy and unsustainable foods are essential measures in this context.
Physical activity: active mobility means that people get more physical exercise in everyday life; it also reduces car traffic – and with it, the consumption of energy, resources and space, as well as air pollution, climate damage and noise. This requires more ways of promoting physical activity and a true mobility turnaround.
Housing: about a billion people still live in slums with often health-threatening living conditions, and new settlement areas will have to be built for around 2.5 billion people by the middle of the century. Urban planning that is compatible with both health and environmental needs also requires reserving a relevant proportion of urban space for common-good-oriented uses.
World society’s possibilities for jointly tackling global challenges are directly dependent on the scientific, innovative and educational capacities of the countries themselves and their interacting communication processes. However, financial resources, knowledge production and education levels still differ massively between high-income, middle-income and low-income countries. The joint ability to speak and act in a multilaterally common language is in urgent need of improvement.
Germany’s Federal Government should champion the implementation of the above-mentioned points, also in the international debate: “At the United Nations Summit of the Future in September 2024, the theme of ‘healthy living on a healthy planet’ should play a key role in strengthening societal resilience in the context of environmental change,” says Anna-Katharina Hornidge. The same applies to the COP28 of the Framework Convention on Climate Change in November 2023, where health issues will be a major point on the agenda for the first time.
The German Federal Government set up the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) as an independent, scientific advisory body in 1992 in the run-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit). The WBGU’s task is to analyse global environmental and development problems and to develop recommendations for action and research in the quest for solutions to these problems. Karen Pittel and Sabine Schlacke are the two co-chairs of the WBGU.