Climate and health: pathway to a sustainable future

Monday 7 December, 2020

Tope Adepoyibi, head of the Achievement Program, writes:


Climate change is the defining public health issue in the 21st century, according to the World Health Organisation.


Our changing climate poses challenges for public health, wellbeing and safety, and the impact is being felt. With our health dependent on the environment, how we deal with climate change will influence important chronic disease outcomes.


The link between climate and health is multi-faceted, with direct community impacts including an increase in extreme weather events like bushfires, heatwaves and floods, and indirect impacts including poorer air quality, changes in the spread of infectious diseases, food safety and drinking water quality risks and mental health effects.  However, actions addressing climate change can have significant health co-benefits, with many solutions supporting health.


Victorians are largely unaware of the link between climate and health. Research by Sustainability Victoria found that 90% of respondents had not considered how climate change impacts health, even though health was ranked as their top priority. But when prompted, the link was readily accepted and, encouragingly, 77% wanted to know more about the health impacts of climate change and how to mitigate the effects.


Tackling climate change and its adverse health impacts is a key focus in the Victorian public health and wellbeing plan 2019-2023.


Healthy environments

Cancer Council Victoria’s Achievement Program, supported by the Victorian government, helps early childhood services, schools and workplaces create healthy environments. To support the government’s focus, the program has launched a ground-breaking Climate and Health pathway.


The new initiative supports and empowers education settings and workplaces across the state to take co-ordinated steps toward health and climate action, which are to:

  • Increase active travel;
  • Eat more plant-based foods;
  • Reduce waste;
  • Use less energy;
  • Connect with nature; and
  • Become climate-ready.

Importantly, the initiative encourages settings to consider how their existing wellbeing and sustainability actions connect and deliver co-benefits, with the link helping to inspire positive change for the health of our communities and planet.


The places where we spend our time – where we learn, work, live and play – have long been the subject of health promotion interventions, and environmentally focused initiatives. In Australia, there are programs improving health and wellbeing in early childhood services, schools and workplaces.


Generating momentum with initiatives explicitly addressing issues such obesogenic environments and poor diet/insufficient physical activity that in turn lead to risk factors for chronic diseases can be challenging, and the prevalence of obesity in Australia continues to rise.


Stealth interventions

Linking climate and health gives health promotion practitioners an opportunity to trial the novel ‘stealth intervention’ approach. Stealth interventions activate people’s intrinsic motivators to realise health benefits, without explicitly referencing behaviour change.


This approach has caught public health experts’ attention, as research suggests linking social movements and climate change goals can change behaviour, like eating more fruit and vegetables and increasing active transport, which impact both climate change and people’s health.


For example, children and adults switching to active transport such as walking or riding a bike reduces emissions and enhances health by improving local air quality and increasing physical activity. Being physically active can reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.


In 2019, the transport sector was responsible for 19% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to the UN environment program, riding 7kms by bicycle instead of car saves 1 kilogram of CO2. Using a ‘stealth intervention’ framework, we can support education settings and workplaces to make changes like installing bike racks and encouraging active transport as climate change interventions, while generating health co-benefits.


Plant-based diet

Additionally, one of the greatest climate change drivers is food production, responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A shift towards healthy, sustainable diets and food systems, as presented in the 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission, is a ‘win–win’ offering major health benefits, while reducing the food system’s environmental impact.


Diets of this nature consist of diverse plant-based foods, low amounts of animal source foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and small amounts of refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars.


Health benefits arise from the consumption of plant-based foods rather than red meat, which is associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and mortality when compared with consumption of nuts and legumes. Plant-based foods also cause fewer adverse environmental impacts including lower greenhouse gas emissions, less land use, and less energy use when compared to animal source foods.


Supplying healthy foods at on-site cafes, when catering and in fundraising drives are good practices for workplaces and education settings to adopt. Also, encouraging healthy eating, for example, through vegetable gardens or healthy eating workshops, can support healthy diets from sustainable food systems and has climate co-benefits.


Nature-based play

Connecting with nature and spending time outdoors can improve stress, resilience and mental health. Activities like walking meetings or nature-based play are great approaches to enhancing physical and mental health and wellbeing.


Our community and planet’s health are in symbiosis, many solutions addressing climate change bring health benefits. Workplaces and education settings can integrate climate and health actions into their existing health and wellbeing activities, promoting environments that not only benefit the health of employees, students and children, but the planet.


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This article was originally published on Croakey and has been republished with permission.