Call For Emergency Action to Limit Global Temperature Increases, Restore Biodiversity, and Protect Health

Author Affiliation
Lukoye Atwoli, Editor in Chief East African Medical Journal
Abdullah H. Baqui, Editor in Chief Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition
Thomas Benfield, Editor in Chief Danish Medical Journal
Raffaella Bosurgi, Editor in Chief PLOS Medicine
Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief The BMJ
Stephen Hancocks, Editor in Chief British Dental Journal
Richard Horton, Editor in Chief The Lancet
Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Senior Adviser UK Health Alliance on Climate Change
Carlos Augusto Monteiro, Editor in Chief Revista de Saúde Pública
Ian Norman, Editor in Chief International Journal of Nursing Studies
Kirsten Patrick, Interim Editor in Chief Canadian Medical Association Journal
Nigel Praities, Executive Editor Pharmaceutical Journal
Marcel G.M. Olde Rikkert, Editor in Chief Dutch Journal of Medicine
Eric J. Rubin, Editor in Chief New England Journal of Medicine
Peush Sahni, Editor in Chief National Medical Journal of India
Richard Smith, Chair UK Health Alliance on Climate Change
Nick Talley, Editor in Chief Revista de Saúde Pública;
Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition
Sue Turale, Editor in Chief International Journal of Nursing Studies;
Danish Medical Journal
Damián Vázquez, Editor in Chief Canadian Medical Association Journal;
PLOS Medicine

Global targets are not enough
Cooperation hinges on wealthy nations doing more

Global Targets Are Not Enough

Encouragingly, many governments, financial institutions, and businesses are setting targets to reach net-zero emissions, including targets for 2030. The cost of renewable energy is dropping rapidly. Many countries are aiming to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030.11

These promises are not enough. Targets are easy to set and hard to achieve. They are yet to be matched with credible short and longer term plans to accelerate cleaner technologies and transform societies. Emissions reduction plans do not adequately incorporate health considerations.12 Concern is growing that temperature rises above 1.5°C are beginning to be seen as inevitable, or even acceptable, to powerful members of the global community.13 Relatedly, current strategies for reducing emissions to net zero by the middle of the century implausibly assume that the world will acquire great capabilities to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.14,15

This insufficient action means that temperature increases are likely to be well in excess of 2°C,16 a catastrophic outcome for health and environmental stability. Critically, the destruction of nature does not have parity of esteem with the climate element of the crisis, and every single global target to restore biodiversity loss by 2020 was missed.17 This is an overall environmental crisis.18

Health professionals are united with environmental scientists, businesses, and many others in rejecting that this outcome is inevitable. More can and must be done now—in Glasgow and Kunming—and in the immediate years that follow. We join health professionals worldwide who have already supported calls for rapid action.19,1

Equity must be at the centre of the global response. Contributing a fair share to the global effort means that reduction commitments must account for the cumulative, historical contribution each country has made to emissions, as well as its current emissions and capacity to respond. Wealthier countries will have to cut emissions more quickly, making reductions by 2030 beyond those currently proposed20,21 and reaching net-zero emissions before 2050. Similar targets and emergency action are needed for biodiversity loss and the wider destruction of the natural world.

To achieve these targets, governments must make fundamental changes to how our societies and economies are organised and how we live. The current strategy of encouraging markets to swap dirty for cleaner technologies is not enough. Governments must intervene to support the redesign of transport systems, cities, production and distribution of food, markets for financial investments, health systems, and much more. Global coordination is needed to ensure that the rush for cleaner technologies does not come at the cost of more environmental destruction and human exploitation.

Many governments met the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic with unprecedented funding. The environmental crisis demands a similar emergency response. Huge investment will be needed, beyond what is being considered or delivered anywhere in the world. But such investments will produce huge positive health and economic outcomes. These include high quality jobs, reduced air pollution, increased physical activity, and improved housing and diet. Better air quality alone would realise health benefits that easily offset the global costs of emissions reductions.22

These measures will also improve the social and economic determinants of health, the poor state of which may have made populations more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.23 But the changes cannot be achieved through a return to damaging austerity policies or the continuation of the large inequalities of wealth and power within and between countries.

Cooperation Hinges on Wealthy Nations Doing More

In particular, countries that have disproportionately created the environmental crisis must do more to support low and middle income countries to build cleaner, healthier, and more resilient societies. High income countries must meet and go beyond their outstanding commitment to provide $100bn a year, making up for any shortfall in 2020 and increasing contributions to and beyond 2025. Funding must be equally split between mitigation and adaptation, including improving the resilience of health systems.

Financing should be through grants rather than loans, building local capabilities and truly empowering communities, and should come alongside forgiving large debts, which constrain the agency of so many low income countries. Additional funding must be marshalled to compensate for inevitable loss and damage caused by the consequences of the environmental crisis.

As health professionals, we must do all we can to aid the transition to a sustainable, fairer, resilient, and healthier world. Alongside acting to reduce the harm from the environmental crisis, we should proactively contribute to global prevention of further damage and action on the root causes of the crisis. We must hold global leaders to account and continue to educate others about the health risks of the crisis. We must join in the work to achieve environmentally sustainable health systems before 2040, recognising that this will mean changing clinical practice. Health institutions have already divested more than $42bn of assets from fossil fuels; others should join them.4

The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C and to restore nature. Urgent, society-wide changes must be made and will lead to a fairer and healthier world. We, as editors of health journals, call for governments and other leaders to act, marking 2021 as the year that the world finally changes course.


Section Editor: Mark I. Langdorf, MD, MHPE

Full text available through open access at

Address for Correspondence: Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Senior Adviser, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. Email: 9 / 2021; 22:1025 – 1027

Submission history: Revision received August 18, 2021; Accepted August 18, 2021

Conflicts of Interest: By the WestJEM article submission agreement, all authors are required to disclose all affiliations, funding sources and financial or management relationships that could be perceived as potential sources of bias. FG serves on the executive committee for the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and is a Trustee of the Eden Project. RS is the chair of Patients Know Best, has stock in UnitedHealth Group, has done consultancy work for Oxford Pharmagenesis, and is chair of the Lancet Commission of the Value of Death. There are no conflicts of interest or sources of funding to declare.


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