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Planetary Health is critical to achieving sustainable development, and to the full realization of the social, environmental, and economic potential of the 2030 Agenda. Credit: UNDP.

As prepared for delivery.

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this event on planetary health organized on the margins of the UN 72nd General Assembly. I’m Achim Steiner, the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme.

The inseparable link between human health and environmental change is something we can no longer ignore. Human-induced climate change and environmental degradation are pushing us past key planetary thresholds related to the health of our air, land, fresh water and oceans. Each boundary we cross represents a tipping point, beyond which the risk to our societies’ health and economies increases, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Planetary health is an inter-disciplinary field that offers a framework to advance the well-being of both people and the planet. The concept of ‘planetary health’ is critical to achieving sustainable development, and to the full realization of the social, environmental, and economic potential of the 2030 Agenda.

Why is the 2030 Agenda so useful for us? It demands integrated approaches that can drive social, economic and environmental progress. The planetary health concept, when combined with the SDGs, together help us to define and modify the interactions of factors – such as the social, economic, geophysical, climatic, political forces – that make and keep people vulnerable. Poverty, ill-health and environmental stress are inter-related, and achieving the 2030 agenda -- and our pledge to leave no one behind – means we must address them together.

While environmental threats are global in their extent, their impacts affect people differently. Those who have fewer assets and resources to fall back on and who are socially, economically or politically marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate-related shocks, which can result in crop failures, spikes in food and water prices and increased incidence of disease. Advancing planetary health means we must address the causes and consequences of social and economic inequities. 

Take the recent examples of the severe weather events across the world – Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria here in the United States and the Caribbean, and flooding caused by the heavy monsoon rain in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. These types of deadly events will likely increase in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change.  If we do not take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while simultaneously planning, adapting and preparing for both incremental changes and extreme events, our efforts to reduce inequities, improve the health of populations and protect the environment will fall short.

The evidence shows the multiple ways in which human health is affected by disruptions in natural systems, disruptions that are channeled through food insecurity and malnutrition, zoonotic and water-borne diseases, and communicable and non-communicable diseases. Key trends related to unplanned urbanization, population growth and ageing, conflict, crisis and migration, only add to the urgency of holistically addressing the health of the planet and human health together.

In 2015, diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths - 16% of all deaths globally. All of us pay a high price for pollution and unhealthy environments. For example, productivity losses caused by pollution-related disease reduce GDP in low- and middle income countries by up to 2% each year. In the most severely affected countries, more than one in four deaths are pollution-related. The majority of pollution related deaths are in low- and middle income countries, and among the poorest households that still have no choice but to use polluting sources for daily cooking, heating and lighting. Women and children pay the highest price, along with indigenous peoples, whose traditional lifestyles are under threat. 

Translating the planetary health framework into action can create a vital counterforce – a virtuous cycle that benefits both people and planet by reducing poverty and inequalities, diminishing gender inequalities, protecting the environment, growing economies sustainably, and accelerating progress across multiple Sustainable Development Goals. 

So that brings us to the question we are here to discuss today: how can we move from the concept of planetary health to meaningful action on the ground? First and foremost, as with the 2030 Agenda, planetary health demands robust partnerships – partnerships with private sector, civil society and academia led by governments as well as partnerships across the UN to support countries in planning, financing and operationalizing development solutions that simultaneously improve human health and that of the environment. Are these partnerships robust and functioning? Second, as with the 2030 Agenda, cross sectoral approaches and innovations are needed that simultaneously promote sustainable use of resources, resilience and economic growth while prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable. Are these policy and practical innovations within our reach, to effect at scale? Finally, do we have the courage and political will to make this possible?