By Dr Kris Murray, Grantham Lecturer in Global Change Ecology
Our planet is ill. Ongoing loss and endangerment of species, degradation of marine and terrestrial ecosystems and their services, and man made changes to the global climate are dramatic symptoms of a major decline in the planet’s environmental health.
In glaring contrast, human health has improved, in some cases radically. Decreases in malnutrition, mortality due to infectious diseases and infant mortality rates, accompanied by substantial increases in life expectancy, can be observed in every major region of the world.
So why is health winning a war, while the environment is losing one?
At a fundamental level, there is a huge difference in investment. Human health is a global priority and survival, healthiness and well-being are personal objectives for almost everyone. Preservation of the environment simply isn’t. Spending on global health, for example, is at least an order of magnitude greater than for environmental conservation.
Don’t bet on it: The Environmentalist’s Paradox
But surely it’s not that simple. Ecosystem services and human health and well-being are supposed to be deeply interconnected, right? So how can we observe declining ecosystem services on the one hand and improving health and well-being on the other?
This question, sometimes referred to as “The Environmentalist’s Paradox”, has been used to suggest that the connections between environment and health are really not that important for the future of human welfare, despite some examples (such as the emergence of novel infectious diseases) that might suggest otherwise.
Alternative explanations for the Paradox do, however, exist.
One is that while total ecosystem services value may be falling, some services on which health is more fundamentally dependent continue to increase (e.g., provision of food).
Another is the suggestion that technological advances can and have resulted in a degree of de-coupling of health from nature.
Finally, time lags could mean that accrued and ongoing losses of ecosystem services and natural capital may yet toll health and well-being on much larger scales in the future, a factor that is thought to have contributed to previous civilization collapse.
At least one review of the evidence suggests that elements of each of these explanations remain plausible, while others are also presumably possible.
Knowing this, how do we tackle the world’s environmental challenges?
To my mind, this means that compiling old and discovering new efficiencies in those areas of potential overlap between environmental and human health is looking increasingly like a very sensible strategy. In other words, there are still huge opportunities and a pressing need to identify and leverage health gains to help stem environmental losses. And vice versa.
In fact, from global targets on climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation to disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, identifying potential and demonstrating genuine health ‘co-benefits’ is a growth industry. This approach is increasingly being used to find, and fund, mitigation and adaptation actions to address global environmental challenges.
The New Climate Institute, for example, estimates that more ambitious emissions reductions targets in the EU could prevent around 40,000 premature deaths per year from air pollution and create around 350,000 jobs in the domestic renewables sector.
Similarly, the UK’s Natural Capital Committee reports that investing in equitable access to green spaces would pay off with improved physical and mental health, generating savings of around £2.1 billion per year.
And perhaps a tad more abstractly, the Centre of Global Health Security highlights how successes in global environmental governance could be leveraged for better global health governance. This illustrates not only the potential breadth of co-beneficial links between environment and human health, but that not all of them necessarily require a natural capital accounting framework to take seriously (although this is clearly helping!).
So while the pursuit of win-win solutions for the environment and health in isolation is potentially an unhealthy obsession, when better to try than on World Environment Day? Working through the costs and trade-offs that typically follow can wait, at least until tomorrow.