By The Rockefeller Foundation-The Lancet Commission, July 16, 2015
Far-reaching changes to the structure and function of the Earth's natural systems represent a growing threat to human health. And yet, global health has mainly improved as these changes have gathered pace. What is the explanation? As a Commission, we are deeply concerned that the explanation is straightforward and sobering: we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present. By unsustainably exploiting nature's resources, human civilisation has flourished but now risks substantial health effects from the degradation of nature's life support systems in the future. Health effects from changes to the environment including climatic change, ocean acidification, land degradation, water scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, and biodiversity loss pose serious challenges to the global health gains of the past several decades and are likely to become increasingly dominant during the second half of this century and beyond. These striking trends are driven by highly inequitable, inefficient, and unsustainable patterns of resource consumption and technological development, together with population growth.
We identify three categories of challenges that have to be addressed to maintain and enhance human health in the face of increasingly harmful environmental trends. Firstly, conceptual and empathy failures (imagination challenges), such as an over-reliance on gross domestic product as a measure of human progress, the failure to account for future health and environmental harms over present day gains, and the disproportionate effect of those harms on the poor and those in developing nations. Secondly, knowledge failures (research and information challenges), such as failure to address social and environmental drivers of ill health, a historical scarcity of transdisciplinary research and funding, together with an unwillingness or inability to deal with uncertainty within decision making frameworks. Thirdly, implementation failures (governance challenges), such as how governments and institutions delay recognition and responses to threats, especially when faced with uncertainties, pooled common resources, and time lags between action and effect.
Although better evidence is needed to underpin appropriate policies than is available at present, this should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Substantial potential exists to link action to reduce environmental damage with improved health outcomes for nations at all levels of economic development. This Commission identifies opportunities for action by six key constituencies: health professionals, research funders and the academic community, the UN and Bretton Woods bodies, governments, investors and corporate reporting bodies, and civil society organisations.
Depreciation of natural capital and nature's subsidy should be accounted for so that economy and nature are not falsely separated. Policies should balance social progress, environmental sustainability, and the economy. To support a world population of 9–10 billion people or more, resilient food and agricultural systems are needed to address both undernutrition and overnutrition, reduce waste, diversify diets, and minimise environmental damage. Meeting the need for modern family planning can improve health in the short term—eg, from reduced maternal mortality and reduced pressures on the environment and on infrastructure.
Planetary health offers an unprecedented opportunity for advocacy of global and national reforms of taxes and subsidies for many sectors of the economy, including energy, agriculture, water, fisheries, and health. Regional trade treaties should act to further incorporate the protection of health in the near and long term. Several essential steps need to be taken to transform the economy to support planetary health. These steps include a reduction of waste through the creation of products that are more durable and require less energy and materials to manufacture than those often produced at present; the incentivisation of recycling, reuse, and repair; and the substitution of hazardous materials with safer alternatives.
1The concept of planetary health is based on the understanding that human health and human civilisation depend on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems. However, natural systems are being degraded to an extent unprecedented in human history.
2Environmental threats to human health and human civilisation will be characterised by surprise and uncertainty. Our societies face clear and potent dangers that require urgent and transformative actions to protect present and future generations.
3The present systems of governance and organisation of human knowledge are inadequate to address the threats to planetary health. We call for improved governance to aid the integration of social, economic, and environmental policies and for the creation, synthesis, and application of interdisciplinary knowledge to strengthen planetary health.
4Solutions lie within reach and should be based on the redefinition of prosperity to focus on the enhancement of quality of life and delivery of improved health for all, together with respect for the integrity of natural systems. This endeavour will necessitate that societies address the drivers of environmental change by promoting sustainable and equitable patterns of consumption, reducing population growth, and harnessing the power of technology for change.
Despite present limitations, the Sustainable Development Goals provide a great opportunity to integrate health and sustainability through the judicious selection of relevant indicators relevant to human wellbeing, the enabling infrastructure for development, and the supporting natural systems, together with the need for strong governance.
The landscape, ecosystems, and the biodiversity they contain can be managed to protect natural systems, and indirectly, reduce human disease risk. Intact and restored ecosystems can contribute to resilience (see panel 1 for glossary of terms used in this report), for example, through improved coastal protection (eg, through wave attenuation) and the ability of floodplains and greening of river catchments to protect from river flooding events by diverting and holding excess water.
The growth in urban populations emphasises the importance of policies to improve health and the urban environment, such as through reduced air pollution, increased physical activity, provision of green space, and urban planning to prevent sprawl and decrease the magnitude of urban heat islands.
Transdisciplinary research activities and capacity need substantial and urgent expansion. Present research limitations should not delay action. In situations where technology and knowledge can deliver win–win solutions and co-benefits, rapid scale-up can be achieved if researchers move ahead and assess the implementation of potential solutions. Recent scientific investments towards understanding non-linear state shifts in ecosystems are very important, but in the absence of improved understanding and predictability of such changes, efforts to improve resilience for human health and adaptation strategies remain a priority. The creation of integrated surveillance systems that collect rigorous health, socioeconomic, and environmental data for defined populations over long time periods can provide early detection of emerging disease outbreaks or changes in nutrition and non-communicable disease burden. The improvement of risk communication to policy makers and the public and the support of policy makers to make evidence-informed decisions can be helped by an increased capacity to do systematic reviews and the provision of rigorous policy briefs.
Health professionals have an essential role in the achievement of planetary health: working across sectors to integrate policies that advance health and environmental sustainability, tackling health inequities, reducing the environmental impacts of health systems, and increasing the resilience of health systems and populations to environmental change.
Humanity can be stewarded successfully through the 21st century by addressing the unacceptable inequities in health and wealth within the environmental limits of the Earth, but this will require the generation of new knowledge, implementation of wise policies, decisive action, and inspirational leadership.