In recent decades and centuries, humanity’s health and well-being have improved across the globe. Among much else, we have witnessed a decrease in rates of child mortality, an increase in life expectancy and a reduction in poverty. Over the same period, our energy consumption has soared, vast swaths of primary forest have been cleared, species extinction rates have accelerated, the oceans have become more acidic and the temperature of the planet has continued to rise. It is clear beyond doubt that the improvements in health and well-being achieved over the past few decades have been supported by our over-exploitation of natural systems.
It is clear beyond doubt that the improvements in health and well-being achieved over the past few decades have been supported by our over-exploitation of natural systems
It is often said that our economic model puts the health and well-being of future generations at risk. However, this statement is only half true: we are also compromising the health and well-being of present generations. The environmental and climate crisis is now undeniable, and we have already seen some of the risks it poses to our health, including some directly related to climate change: the more than 70,000 deaths caused by the European heat wave in the summer of 2003 and the 60,000 deaths caused by climate-related natural disasters each year (mostly in low- and middle-income countries).
Other risks arising from the environmental and climate crisis are less obvious and involve complex relationships between different systems, making it difficult to predict how they will affect our health. One such example is the COVID-19 pandemic, as a colleague and I recently explained in the scientific journal Environmental Research. Along similar lines, a recent report by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) concluded that our current consumption model and the resulting degradation of natural systems increase the risk of pandemics like the current one.
Land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, and wildlife trade and consumption bring humans into closer contact with wildlife and livestock, allowing microbes to jump from animals to people and cause outbreaks of new infectious diseases. These new diseases can easily infect large numbers of people in highly populated urban centres and spread across the globe via trade routes and international travel.
The concept of planetary health has acquired special relevance in today’s context. It refers to the achievement of the highest level of health, well-being and equity throughout the world while respecting the limits of the Earth’s natural systems so that humanity can thrive—a challenge that also requires attention in the political, economic and social realms. The concept of planetary health affords an unprecedented opportunity to foster profound social changes to further improve humanity’s health within the sustainable limits of the planet while building just and equitable societies. Among other things, these changes could include the reformulation of food systems, the energy transition and the reorganisation of cities.
The concept of planetary health refers to the achievement of the highest level of health, well-being and equity throughout the world while respecting the limits of the Earth’s natural systems so that humanity can thrive
Planetary Health Solutions to the Challenges of the Anthropocene
Diet is closely linked to health and environmental sustainability. Agriculture currently accounts for 40% of land use and is responsible for as much as 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use. The planetary health paradigm proposes a reformulation of food systems not only to promote nutritionally healthy diets and reduce global rates of malnutrition, cancer and obesity, but also to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions, curb deforestation and mitigate other environmental impacts.
The energy transition—i.e. the shift from a fossil-fuel-based energy industry to a clean energy industry—is not only an opportunity to reduce CO 2 emissions, but also a chance to decentralise energy production and make it accessible to more vulnerable sectors of the population. Among other benefits, this approach would shore up the supply of energy to health centres in rural parts of low-income countries.
The planetary health paradigm proposes a reformulation of food systems to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions, curb deforestation and mitigate other environmental impacts.
The rapid growth of urban populations poses a challenge with regard to optimising natural resources and human health in these environments. Through the prism of planetary health, it is clear that reducing the ecological footprint of cities through policies that protect biodiversity, reduce air and water pollution, and minimise per capita energy and water use will yield health benefits for humans as well as the planet. Such policies might include active transport systems, which reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality and encourage physical activity—and therefore have a positive impact on the health of both people and the planet.
In addition to promoting sustainable changes to improve health, planetary health seeks to introduce mechanisms for adapting to and mitigating existing impacts and to improve the integration of environmental health services and health care systems. In this sense, planetary health foresees the creation of integrated surveillance systems that will monitor environmental changes that could affect human health in order to identify catalysts, trends and critical points, as well as changes in health-related indicators, such as the early detection of outbreaks of emerging diseases and changes in nutrition and the burden of non-communicable diseases.
Against the current backdrop, imaginative solutions are urgently needed to address the challenges of the environmental and climate crisis. The transdisciplinary notion of planetary health provides an opportunity both to analyse the complex causes of the current crisis and to seek solutions to the challenges it poses.