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29th September 2023

Health leaders call on government to do more to protect nature for the benefit of health

The call comes on the back of our biodiversity, climate change and health policy report published today.

Leading health organisations from across the UK have called on the government to increase action to protect our natural ecosystems for the benefit of the nation’s health. 

The call comes on the back of a policy report published today by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) that outlines a cycle of events that contribute to the loss of nature, climate change, and poor health. It’s a cycle the health leaders say we need to break. 

Natural environments that are biodiverse with a variety of plant and animal life are fundamental to human health. We depend on this biodiversity for food, medicine, energy, clean air and water, security from natural disasters, recreation and cultural well-being. Without it, our health suffers. Today, biodiversity is declining at its fastest rate in human history and the impacts on our health include increased risk of diseases, reduced capacity to develop new medicines derived from nature, food and water insecurity, and harm to physical and mental wellbeing. Natural spaces also provide a cooling effect, particularly important during heatwaves. 

The report lays out seven areas, in which the health leaders say the UK government needs to increase action to protect the land and sea, both in the UK and through its international commitments, to prevent further harm to health and loss of life caused by the loss of nature:

The health leaders will be launching the report with a cycle to Camley Street Natural Park on the morning of the 29th of September to highlight the benefits of an urban nature reserve in London. Dr Anandita Pattnaik, a policy officer with the UKHACC, said, “More than 84% of the UK population lives in urban areas. The expansion of towns and cities has led to the loss of nature due to changes in land use, pollution and unhealthy lifestyles. We need to see changes that support a biodiverse nature and enable access to high-quality green and blue spaces for everyone that can help improve both physical and mental health. We hope that by visiting one such place in London, we’ll help to raise awareness of how beneficial they are for health and nature.”

Richard Smith, Chair of UKHACC said, “We have been slow to recognise that nature is not something outside us but that we are part of nature and that healthy nature is essential for our health. We call on the government and other authorities to increase actions to preserve and promote nature not just for the sake of the environment but for the sake of health.”  

Dr Shireen Kassam, Consultant Haematologist at King’s College Hospital, London and Founder of Plant Based Health Professionals UK, said, “Food system transformation is essential for restoring nature and preventing further climate breakdown. Shifting towards plant-based diets also provides co-benefits for improving human health, addressing antibiotic resistance, reducing pandemic risk and being kinder and more compassionate towards our fellow non-human animals. There are no downsides to adopting a plant-based diet and it’s a hugely impactful action many of us can undertake immediately.”

Dr Georgie Sowman, a GP in Northeast England, Greener Practice, and Co-founder of Healthcare Ocean said, ‘‘Our health depends on thriving nature and oceans. And yet the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Acting on the climate, pollution, and nature emergencies together – by addressing our impacts and dependencies, prioritising nature and ocean recovery, and reducing the unequal access to the benefits of nature in our communities is key to our health and the health of future generations.”

Dr Sue Paterson said, “As President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons I welcome this timely report. Veterinary professionals are used to thinking about One Health – the synergies between animal health and human health. Nowhere is this clearer than in the links between the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis? Both pose existential risks to animal and human health and welfare, and a coordinated approach is essential to addressing them. Veterinary surgeons are uniquely placed to work with farmers on questions of sustainability, including the need for ‘less and better’ consumption of animal products, thereby benefiting biodiversity, animal welfare, and human health.”

Professor Claire Anderson, President of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said, “By harming our natural ecosystem, we’re also harming our health. Those in power must recognise the reality of the warnings made in this report and take urgent and firm action to protect nature. Medicines are a crucial intervention in healthcare, we recognise the environmental impact of pharmaceutical products on the environment and our waters. We are committed to working with our colleagues for increased awareness and action in this area and all those highlighted to safeguard both human and ecological health. If action is not taken we are sure to be facing increases in non-communicable diseases, reduced capacity to develop new medicines and antimicrobial resistance. Together, with a united effort, we can contribute to the preservation of our natural world and the wellbeing of future generations.”

Dom Higgins, Head of Health and Education at The Wildlife Trusts said, “We are facing two inextricably linked crises; the climate emergency and the ongoing loss of natural habitat and biodiversity. To compound matters, a lack of access to nature, dirty air, polluted water and the impact of a warming climate are widening health inequalities. Those who are in most need of the health and well-being benefits of nature are least likely to have access from their doorsteps. The most under-served areas of the country are nine times less likely to have safe and accessible green and blue places. This is an incredibly important report from the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. The loss of wildlife and habitats leaves us ill-equipped to reduce our emissions and adapt to change. The Wildlife Trusts strongly support actions and policies to tackle the climate crisis and reverse nature’s decline.”

Professor Andrew Elder, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said, “The climate emergency and biodiversity crisis are two unparalleled challenges that are intricately linked and impact in multiple ways on human health whilst also increasing health inequalities. UKHACC’s report is welcome and timely and we call on governments to respond in the most proactive way possible by taking additional and decisive actions to preserve and enhance ecosystems.”

Jacob Krzanowski, Sustainability Lead at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “We welcome this report and its clear acknowledgement of the impact that the environment, including blue and green spaces, has on mental and physical health. The adoption of its recommendations is essential in creating sustainable mental health care that is nature-friendly, which will have a significant impact on people’s lives. Knowing the importance of nature for wellbeing, our members have been working tirelessly to sound the alarm and move towards a sustainable model of healthcare. The clear connection between climate change and ecological decline means that biodiversity loss and pollution disproportionately impact the health of vulnerable people. This is especially true for people with mental illness, exacerbating existing inequalities. Within this report, there is a critical message: to restore, protect, and ultimately celebrate the incredible ecosystems that humanity depends on. It is clear that climate change and the decline in nature pose a threat to the long-term health of the nation, and with focused, collective action over the next decade, we can protect the healthcare system.”

Tracy Nicholls, Chief Executive of the College of Paramedics, said: “This is such an important report from the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.  The harm and potential loss of these vital ecosystems will have an impact on our population and our professions. The College of Paramedics has recognised the importance of nature as just one aspect of healing the paramedic profession by taking our members back to nature through schemes designed to support their mental health and well-being.  For our patients, they may face health inequalities that relate directly to their ability to access these precious resources from nature and to live a healthier life.  We stand firmly with the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and urge positive action to make a difference for a healthier future.”

Prof. Paul Johnstone, Chair of the Faculty of Public Health’s Climate and Health Committee, said: “This is an important and timely report that highlights the need to reaffirm and strengthen government commitments to protect our environment and encourage biodiversity.

Our health and well-being are directly affected by the environment in which we live, with communities already facing disadvantages particularly vulnerable to the impacts of environmental degradation. Protecting the natural environment is key to improving health and we support the actions set out in this report.”