Nature is the ultimate healthcare system
From the mountains to the ocean, healthcare solutions are all around us
By Inger Andersen, executive director, UN Environment Programme
You do not need to be a doctor to understand the links between a healthy environment and healthy people. Simply walk out into nature, breathe the fresh air, listen to the sounds of birds chirping or the rustle of leaves, and feel the stress drain away.
In such moments, we know instinctively that nature is good for us. Yet we have built our increasingly urban world on an economic model that erodes the natural environment and its biodiversity.
The full health benefits of the natural world are too extensive to list. Nature gives us breathable air, drinkable water and productive soil. It is the source of many medicines, traditional and new. Research shows that time spent in nature improves health outcomes: from children’s brains becoming better wired to deal with anxiety and hyperactivity, to our bodies producing the same de-stress chemicals that are prescribed to patients in pill form.
The environment can, of course, also cause poor health. Every year, diarrhoea and malaria claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of children under five in developing countries, and infringing on nature can increase the incidence of diseases such as Ebola and avian influenza.
Degradation of the natural world is driving up healthcare costs, disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people. To have any chance of achieving universal health coverage, we need to prioritise policies and actions that protect and restore ecosystems, so we can take full advantage of the health benefits and minimise the negative impacts.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
Unfortunately, we are still far from achieving this balance. The World Health Organization tells us that almost a quarter of deaths globally are due to unhealthy environments that expose people to risks such as air, water and soil pollution.
Indoor and outdoor air pollution alone claims seven million lives and causes a host of other problems annually. The World Bank estimates that air pollution costs the welfare system more than $5 trillion every year.
Then there is the damage we are doing to biodiversity. In early May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported damning research that showed nature is declining at unprecedented rates. Humanity has significantly altered three-quarters of the land-based environment and two-thirds of the marine environment. The decline in biodiversity harms our ability to provide diverse and nutritious diets and research new medicines – both obvious determinants of health.
There is, however, hope. We are increasingly facing up to global challenges that are closely linked to health, as is the case with air pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss – all priorities for the UN Environment Programme. The huge growth in rewilding movements demonstrates growing recognition of the importance of nature. Crucially, young people around the world are now demanding we protect their future, as personified by the emergence of young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg.
It is now time for us to make the right political choices and investments, both immediate and long term, to build on this momentum, while understanding that approaches and challenges vary in developed and developing countries.
An obvious and urgent task is to embrace the idea of putting a value on nature. Gross domestic product is an outdated indicator that encourages perpetual growth without acknowledging the erosion of the natural capital that supports our economies, livelihoods and health.
Our planet has limits. We need to acknowledge this in our economic models.
We can do much to preserve biodiversity by moving to less impactful forms of agriculture – ones that do not convert huge swathes of land for monocrops or livestock, and pump chemicals into the land and water. Encouraging people to move to more plant-based diets can play a key role, too.
By prioritising actions that have multiple benefits, we can maximise our time and resources. For example, policies that promote clean transport – such as incentivising hybrid or electric vehicles – cut greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality and reduce health costs. Such triple action can more than recoup the costs of retooling our economies. According to the sixth Global Environmental Outlook, achieving the Paris Agreement’s climate mitigation targets would cost about $22 trillion, but bring an additional $54 trillion in health benefits from reduced air pollution.
These are only a few examples of what we can do. There are hundreds of ways we can conserve nature. By using them we can improve our health, save valuable resources and open up the possibility of universal health care across the globe. Governments need to demonstrate real political will, corporations need to work within the limits of nature and citizens need to keep the pressure on.
Nature is the ultimate healthcare system. It is time we started treating it that way.