Health as an indicator of sustainable development: How health can contribute to and benefit from sustainable policies.

Author(s) Natalie Mrak1, Callum Brindley2
Affiliation(s) 1Development studies, The Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland, 2Development Studies , The Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland.
Country - ies of focus Switzerland
Relevant to the conference tracks Environment and Sustainability
Summary This study highlights how health can be a cross-sectoral indicator for the proposed 2015 sustainable development goals. The impacts of environmental changes on human wellbeing have been clearly established but insufficient work has been done to show how sustainable policies can also benefit health. This study recommends health indicators that can be used to measure sustainable progress in the sectors of water, food, energy, housing and transportation within the urban environment. It also provides suggestions on accountability and governance mechanisms that should put be in place at local, national and global levels to ensure that everyone takes responsibility for sustainable development.
Background Growing concerns about the impact of environmental changes on health have emerged as middle-income countries have adopted the consumption and greenhouse gas emission behaviours of high-income countries. The same economic trajectory that has created a global marketplace dependent on increasing volumes of production, consumption and the long-distance transport of goods, has also led to the overexploitation of finite natural resources, energy shortages and the overburdening of the natural environment. The affects from this trajectory not only pose challenges to the sustainability of the environment but to human health as well. About 24 per cent of the global burden of disease and 23 per cent of deaths are attributable to environmental causes and around 36 per cent of the disease burden in children is caused by environmental factors. Despite this information, health has been an omitted aspect in climate policies. The collective health benefits that can be gained from a low carbon economy have been overlooked when they can actually be motivation for further cutting greenhouse emissions. Emphasizing the joint benefits could make reducing greenhouse emissions attractive since they serve as a means towards achieving both public health and climate goals.
Objectives The primary objective of this study is to demonstrate how health is a cross-sectoral theme of sustainable development that can be used to motivate behaviour change. The secondary objective is to show how human wellbeing will be impacted if sustainable approaches to development are not pursued. Since the MDGs were established in 2000, tremendous progress has been made to improve health outcomes but this progress will become compromised if measures are not taken to improve the current state of the environment. Everyone will be impacted but particularly the poorest and most vulnerable whose already scarce access to public goods could be further compromised as governments grapple with economic devastation as result of changes in the climate and environment. Urban areas will continue to grow, unable to accommodate their expanding population, which could lead to increased food insecurity as dry arable rural lands become incapable of producing crops. Prolonged drought conditions and increased occurrence of natural disasters could also lead to water insecurity. This situation, combined with poor housing conditions, unsustainable energy sources and carbon-motorized transport will negatively impact health and the environment. The tertiary objective is to show how policies across diverse sectors can improve human wellbeing and the environment. Health can be used to measure the effectiveness of policies in various sectors as well as benefit from policies that also improve the environment. In order to tackle the health risks that environmental changes pose, an integrated, cross-sectoral approach needs to be taken since human wellbeing is not only affected by such factors as health systems as but also other factors like pollutants and physical activity. The additional objective is to analyse the opportunities and challenges to promoting more sustainable behaviour. Everyone can contribute to a sustainable future from healthcare workers to businesses as well as governments and civil society. The post-2015 development agenda provides an opportunity to implement accountability mechanisms that do not currently exist. As cities become centres of human settlement, there is also a need to implement environmental-friendly policies that enhance rather than detract from economic growth.
Methodology The main question of this study is to see how health is a cross-sectoral indicator of sustainable development. The study was conducted between June and September 2013. The search strategy sourced reports and articles primarily published by the United Nations, especially the WHO, UNICEF and UNEP as well as the below leading health and development journals. We reviewed only articles published in English and concentrated on the period from 1990 to 2012. Our principal search terms were: “health” AND “sustainable development”; “environmental burden of disease”; “healthy environment”; “urban health”; “healthy cities”; “health” and “results-based management”; “health indicators.” In total, we closely reviewed over 100 reports and articles. To analyse the literature, the following questions were posed:• How can health and sustainable development be linked?
• How is health positioned in the post-2015 development agenda and the sustainable development goals debate?
• What are the strengths and limitations of indicators
• What current health indicators exist and what are their merits?
• What lessons can be drawn from the WHO’s Healthy Cities programme?
• How can inter-sectoral cooperation be promoted?The study looks at sustainable development within the context of urban areas, focusing on five key areas – food, water, energy, households and transport. Cities were selected as the geographic area of focus since their populations are expected to continue to increase over the course of this century. The five areas of focus were selected on the basis of their strong cross-sectoral communications with health and the burden of disease from their associated risk factors. The study demonstrates how the relationship between health and sustainable development can be thought of in three ways: health contributes to the achievement of sustainable goals, health can benefit from sustainable development and health is a way to measure progress across all three pillars of sustainable development policy.
Results The results of the study clearly demonstrate that health is an integral part of sustainable development whose contributions should be considered more seriously in the post-2015 development agenda discussions. First, climate change is contributing to the increased incidence of natural disasters and disease outbreaks, increasing the global burden of disease. Second, urban areas will endure great burdens as a result of climate change, which will be primarily due to the increased migration to cities. Third, there are measures that can be implemented across sectors, which can reduce greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions as well as improve human well-being. Last, this study also found that while there is an abundance of data on health as an indicator of sustainable development and the distinctiveness of each country’s context make it difficult to discern which existing indicators are most practical and useful, there are a series of assessments that can be carried out to develop a fit-for-purpose complement of indicators. The below tool outlines the method for conducting these assessments by focusing on a country’s:• Burden of disease
• Level of economic and social development, and
• Environmental condition and pressuresTables of indicators by income-level for the health-sustainable development nexus were created. It was found that each indicator has the following four strengths;

• Relates closely to both health and sustainable development
• Relies on data that is easily accessible and reliable
• Communicates clearly a development challenge
• Facilitates practical policy interventions

The primary limitation of this study was the lack of first-hand qualitative data which is due to the top-down approach of the study. A complementary bottom-up study containing ethnographic work could help confirm these findings and provide a people centered-approach to seeing how health is an integral part of sustainable development.

Conclusion Health can be a useful focal point to promote inter-sectoral cooperation at the local level but there is unfortunately no set of health indicators that are relevant to all contexts. A drawback to the work that has been done on health as an indicator of sustainable development in urban settings has been the emphasis on the quantitative aspect of indicators. This has made it difficult to single out a set of best practices and to actually see whether these interventions improve well-being. As urban populations continue to expand in the coming decades, new approaches to urban planning need to be taken which engage a variety of stakeholders and adapt to the dynamic nature of cities. Small-scale interventions in urban areas can be key to providing insights into what does and does not work. To ensure the work on health and sustainable development continues, health needs to be an integral component of the post-2015 development agenda. The sustainable development goals of the post-2015 agenda will not be achieved if a concerted effort is not made to assist low and middle-income countries in developing and implementing renewable energy techniques as their populations and economies continue to grow in the coming decades. Mechanisms should be created that not only transfer funds but knowledge and technology as well. Governance mechanisms need to be set in place, which marry policy and scientific evidence and impose accountability. Increasing public awareness of the intricate relationship between public health and the environment could help promote sustainable behaviour and raise attention to the need of holding all stakeholders accountable. Ultimately, there needs to be commitment at all levels of government and society in order for sustainable development to become a reality.

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