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Sustainable Development and Public Health


We ... believe that climate change is the public health challenge of the 21st century and that, unless decisive action is taken now, the world will face global public health and environmental catastrophe.


Statement dated 22 January 2008 signed by 21 health leaders, including the Presidents of the Faculty of Public Health, Royal College of Physicians of London, and Association of Directors of Public Health, the Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation.


The Health Map illustrates how health and well-being are determined by people’s complex relationships with the natural environment, which provides the conditions that make life possible. Over the last 150 years, economic and social development have been increasingly unsustainable because the ever-growing human population is depleting non-renewable natural resources, particularly fossil fuels, which will not be available for future generations.

Health Map

Beyond the health damage caused by heatwaves, floods and other extreme weather events, environmental threats have the potential to destroy the ecosystems on which all life depends and create human conflict over the remaining natural resources. The fundamental determinants of health – food, water and social stability – are already affected in many countries around the world, particularly in Africa.

The development of a healthy low-carbon society which minimises use of irreplaceable natural resources is increasingly integral to public health. For example, many projects link carbon reduction with food and health and active travel and health. The evidence that the era of cheap oil is over (“peak oil”) suggests that resilience and self-sufficiency are important within the NHS, local government and local communities.

The integration of sustainable development and public health is to be found in national policy, for example the English Chief Medical Officer’s 2009 Annual Report has a chapter on climate change and health.


What’s good for the environment is good for health

Sustainable development and public health can be integrated in research, policy and practice, for example:

  • A healthy diet, with less livestock products and processed food, and high in locally-grown seasonal vegetables, reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the production and distribution of food, and loss of habitat and biodiversity especially from cutting down forests.

Health benefits: less cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity.

  • More walking and cycling, less use of cars, reduces carbon emissions.

Health benefits: less depression, stroke, heart attacks, cancers, falls, obesity, diabetes.

  • Insulation in housing reduces carbon consumption from heating.

Health benefits: fewer deaths from hypothermia caused by fuel poverty.


Integrating sustainable development into public health practice

In local government, sustainable development is taken into account in planning systems, and is promoted by environmental health practitioners. In the NHS, there are a small number of posts with 'sustainability' in the job title, but the way forward is for sustainable development to become a normal part of everyday public health practice:

Improving people’s health – examples:

  • Active travel initiatives foster more walking and cycling; and enable people to access the health-promoting benefits of contact with nature 
  • Food and health programmes, growing and cooking locally-sourced, seasonal food
  • Linking with the Transition community movement (see the Transition Network website) in which people are creating more self-sufficient, resilient local communities, improving their quality of life

Protecting people’s health - examples:

  • Adaptation and developing resilience to the effects of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, floods and storms
  • Enhancing food and water security through early warning systems, emergency planning and civic preparedness
  • Monitor and control new and emerging diseases resulting from climate change, such as Lyme disease and malaria.

Health and social care quality - examples:

  • Developing models and pathways of care to reduce consumption of natural resources, including less use of energy from fossil fuels in drugs, healthcare equipment, supplies and transport
  • Plan for the impact of climate change on the utlisation of health and care services, such as those resulting from adverse weather conditions (flooding, cold weather, heatwave).

Strategy and policy – examples:

  • Acting as an advocate for the importance of sustainable development to public health
  • Developing strategies to contribute to the implementation of the 2008 Climate Change Act, which commits the UK to a reduction of 80 percent in carbon emissions by 2050

Key topics on sustainable development and health:

  • The basic science of ecosystems, ecosystem services and climate chaos
  • Key legislation, e.g. Climate change act 2008
  • Mitigation and adaptation and how they connect
  • Sustainable communication and travel
  • Energy conservation and local and renewable sources of energy
  • Low-footprint food and drink production and diets
  • Waste management systems and processes
  • Sustainable design of the built environment
  • The importance of the natural environment for health
  • Healthier, happier and more sustainable lifestyles
  • Designing pathways of care that make fewer demands on natural resources


The main reward for me is working with wonderfully committed people on issues that really matter to me: sustainable development and climate change, multi-disciplinary public health workforce development, health promotion, vulnerable young people.

- Jenny Griffiths, OBE, Independent health consultant; Moderator, UKPHR

See Jenny's career story 

One of the main rewards for me is utilising action learning as a method to overcome obstacles to change. Essentially, this involves bringing together a group or groups within which individuals support one another, with the help of a facilitator, to work on and resolve the challenges that each is facing.

- Helen Ross, Senior Public Health Development Manager, NHS Nottingham City

See Helen's career story 

Further information  

National Adaptation Programme: Making the Country Resilient to a Changing Climate (Updated July 2013)  
Health Effects of Climate Change in the UK, 2012 (2012) 
Sustaining a Healthy Future: Taking action on climate change (Faculty of Public Health 2009). 
The Health Practitioner’s Guide to Climate Change, ed. Griffiths, Rao, Adshead and Thorpe (Earthscan 2009).
The Climate and Health Council 
NHS Sustainable Development Unit 
Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 
SHEBA – sustainable healthcare   
Securing the Future – delivering UK sustainable development strategy 

The Health Map from Barton, H. and Grant, M. (2006) "A health map for the local human habitat." The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 126(6), pp. 252-253.


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