Climate change and public health

Climate change is a large-scale, long-term shift in the planet’s weather patterns and average temperatures, with trends showing a move towards warmer, wetter and less predictable weather in Scotland. This will challenge established ways of living globally and here in Scotland, with implications for service delivery, governance, the environment and biodiversity, communities and individual decision-making.

Public health has an important role in shaping this agenda, both in terms of protecting our population from the adverse impacts of climate change and in shaping a transition towards more sustainable living. Here at the GCPH, this involves several strands of work. Firstly, we are seeking to build understanding on the population health impacts of climate change, including how population groups are being differentially impacted. Secondly, through various strands of work we are developing understanding of how the population and services can successfully transition to more sustainable practice and supporting this transition. Finally, we are committed to reflecting on the sustainability of our practices within our own organisation and, where possible, we are making changes to improve this.  

The Scottish Managed Sustainable Health Network (SMaSH) brings together organisations to improve sustainability in the interests of health and to consider the role of the NHS in shaping, leading and implementing necessary change. SMaSH is one of the partners involved in developing an NHS strategy on sustainability and climate change for Scotland.

Climate justice

Climate justice can be considered both in terms of how people contribute to, and are impacted by, climate change. A range of socioeconomic factors can shape people’s experience of climatic events, including income, housing tenure, geographical location, affordability of damage insurance and how well connected they are to protective or supportive services.

Without access to protective factors, adverse weather events will cause stress and may lead some people to adopt unhealthy habits as a coping mechanism. Given our commitment to informing processes or approaches that can tackle inequality, all future our work on climate change will apply a climate justice lens.

Climate change policy

Climate change policy throughout the world is shaped by global agreements and commitments.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - which has almost universal membership - is the main international agreement on climate action.  The treaty commits signatories to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on common interests, but different levels of responsibility, with developed nations expected to “take the lead” in addressing climate change. Meanwhile, the Paris agreement, which is the global plan to tackle climate change, brought together nations to agree a global response to reducing global temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

The connection between climate change and health, and the pressing need to tackle both through global action, is demonstrated in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are a global set of interconnected goals which collectively seek to end poverty, reduce inequality, improve health and tackle climate change.

Within Scotland, a Climate Change Plan sets the agenda for meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets from 2018-2032. Meanwhile, The Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme 2019-2024 is the Scottish Government’s statutory five-year programme for adapting to climate change.

Declaring a climate emergency

In 2019 a climate emergency was declared for Scotland. This announcement set a precedent for achieving zero carbon emissions at a faster rate than the current 2050 target.  Similarly, Glasgow City Council have declared a climate emergency, with the Glasgow’s Climate Emergency Working Group publishing a report with 61 recommendations for Glasgow and its people to adopt.  The current carbon neutrality target for Glasgow is 2030.

COP 26

COP26 - the 2020 UN climate summit in Glasgow - will be the largest and most important global gathering on climate change since the Paris Summit in 2015. The event presents an opportunity for Glasgow to demonstrate global leadership on climate change and to showcase how the city is working towards becoming carbon neutral.

Our work on climate change

Various aspects of our work relate to climate change, both in terms of adapting to, and mitigating its effects. In particular, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage more sustainable and active forms of travel and improve the sustainability of the food system will have positive impacts on health and the environment. These changes will contribute to better air quality, encourage healthier and more sustainable behaviours, and contribute to wider targets of achieving carbon neutrality and the global commitment to preventing dangerous temperature rises.

Transport contributes around 36% to Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions and the food sector is estimated to contribute to approximately another 25-30% from agriculture and land use, storage, transport, packaging, processing, retail, and consumption. 

We have hosted seminars to highlight and stimulate discussion on climate change and health (Impact of weather on human health - current and future issues and Health, climate change and sustainable development) and we have worked with communities in Glasgow to explore how climate change adaptation might be tackled through place-based actions.

Internal practice on climate change

To consider the sustainability of our own organisational practices, we have established an office sustainability group to look at our office systems and to consider where we could reduce our impact on the environment. Over time we will be looking to share our learning on this process, both in terms of successful changes and challenges.