It seems rallying cries for a so-called "green recovery" from the coronavirus are building by the day. As governments spend trillions of dollars to cope with the pandemic and chart a way forward, advocates ranging from business leaders to environmental NGOs have thrown their weight behind policies that leverage stimulus funds for sustainable development. This week, healthcare professionals entered the mix.
On Tuesday, more than 350 health organizations signed an open letter to world leaders in the G-20, which represents both industrial and developing nations, calling for a "healthy recovery" that limits air pollution and mitigates climate change.
The groups represent over half of the global medical workforce, or more than 40 million health professionals. They called on G-20 leaders to engage their chief medical officers and scientific advisors directly in the production of COVID-19 stimulus packages — and to solicit their feedback about potential implications for public health and wellbeing.
"The enormous investments your governments will make over the coming months in key sectors like health care, transport, energy and agriculture must have health protection and promotion embedded at their core," the groups wrote in their letter.
To understand what that means in practice, let's dive into the letter — and what experts are saying about it — for a closer look.
Before the pandemic, air pollution from traffic, energy production, waste incineration and agriculture was linked to 7 million premature deaths each year, the health organizations observed in their letter. Around 780 million people lacked access to clean drinking water. And 800 million people were already experiencing direct impacts from climate change, with billions at even greater risk if current emissions pathways continue.
"A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations," the groups including the World Medical Association and the International Council of Nurses told G-20 leaders. "To achieve that healthy economy, we must use smarter incentives and disincentives in the service of a healthier, more resilient society."'
Their vision for a green recovery is bold and includes "major reforms to current fossil fuel subsidies," shifting the majority of funds toward renewable energy development.
For perspective, that would be a lot of cash: Global governments funneled more than $400 billion in direct subsidies to fossil fuel companies in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). When factoring in world leaders' failure to put a price on carbon, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that governments — and their taxpayers — back the fossil fuel industry to the tune of a staggering $5 trillion each year.
The health groups pointed to a 2020 study from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which estimates that shifting the energy system away from fossil fuels could spur nearly $100 trillion in global GDP gains between now and 2050.
“Climate change poses an imminent and serious threat to the health of the world’s population," Annette Kennedy, president of the International Council of Nurses, said in a statement. "We are calling on governments to make sure that pollution levels do not return to previous levels, so that our children and grandchildren will be able to grow up healthily in a livable and sustainable climate. Only by investing in both healthcare and the environment can we create a sustainable future.”
Worker rights are also on the agenda, as the groups call for "access to well-paying jobs that do not exacerbate pollution or nature degradation." More than 1.1 million people work in the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. alone. Like workers across virtually every sector, many have lost their jobs amid coronavirus lockdowns. Groups including the World Resources Institute (WRI) say the recovery period is an ideal time to ensure a fair transition for fossil fuel workers, including coverage for income, training and relocation for those facing job loss.
Further, a recent economic analysis from the Sierra Club indicates a green recovery in the U.S. — aimed at rethinking energy production, transportation, manufacturing and land use — could create 9 million good-paying jobs every year over the next decade. A global analysis from Oxford University similarly concluded that green recovery plans have potential for the highest returns on investment in the form of job creation, economic stimulus, and public and environmental health.
"Tackling climate change has the answer to our economic problems,” Cameron Hepburn, director of the Smith School of enterprise and the environment at Oxford University and lead author of the study, told the Guardian.
Health experts seem to agree. “Health professionals are at the frontlines of this emergency, and we are seeing the immense loss of lives because of acting too late,” said Miguel Jorge, the president of the World Medical Association, in a statement. “We know now more than ever that healthy lives depend on a healthy planet. As we walk on the road to recovery, we need to build a system that will protect us from further damage."
Whether world leaders will heed the call for a green recovery is yet to be seen, but national governments including the European Union and South Korea have indicated that some elements of a green recovery plan may be on the table.
“There will be a difficult debate about the allocation of funds," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a virtual climate meeting of 30 world leaders last month, as quoted by the Guardian. "But it is important that recovery programs always keep an eye on the climate. We must not sideline climate, but invest in climate technologies.”
The next G-20 summit is set for November. Empowering women and children, protecting the environment, and ensuring equitable access to technology are all on the agenda.
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