jeni-miller2017 is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month APHA-led initiative with monthly themes related to the health impacts of climate change. December’s theme encourages cross-sector partnerships to #ActOnClimate. Today’s guest blogger is Jeni Miller, PhD, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancers and diabetes now account for nearly 70 percent of all deaths, killing 40 million people around the world per year, according to the World Health Organization. Traditional behavior-change campaigns that address NCDs target tobacco use, diet and physical activity overlook the significant and increasing role factors like rapid urbanization, changing lifestyles and exposure to pollution play — in both NCDs and in climate change.

Done right, strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change can offer tremendous co-benefits to health by tackling the upstream causes of rising global chronic disease. The need for collaboration is crucial. The potential for improved health in a joint approach is why, last year, the Global Climate and Health Alliance and the NCD Alliance partnered on a policy brief. Highlighting “shared opportunities for action,” the brief discussed how well-conceived strategies related to air pollution, energy, transportation and food systems could yield significant co-benefits for climate and health.

Over half of the world’s population lives in cities, and the percentage is growing. People’s lives are becoming more sedentary, diets are shifting to more processed foods and animal products and increasing evidence links environmental risk factors to a wide range of NCDs.

Air pollution alone is responsible for 6.5 million deaths annually and is linked to health impacts such as heart attacks, respiratory diseases, strokes and cancers, brain development and cognitive function. Fossil fuel-based energy sources, such as coal-fired electricity, and gas and diesel fuel for transport, are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions and ambient air pollution.

Indoor air pollution, primarily from burning solid fuels for cooking, lighting and heat, is responsible for 4.3 million deaths per year — disproportionately among women and children in low-income countries. Decarbonizing our energy supply and ensuring access to clean energy would provide major benefits to global health, while reducing health costs and mitigating climate change.

Climate change is, and must increasingly be a part of the NCD conversation. It was at this past weekend’s 2017 Global NCD Alliance Forum, held in Sharjah, UAE. GCHA’s workshop there covered “Human and Planetary Health: At the Intersection of NCDs, Urbanisation and Climate Change.” And the plenary keynote by Dr. Anders Nordström focused on NCDs and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Support for active transportation (walking, biking) offers another opportunity for significant co-benefits. Biking, walking and using clean energy-based public transit gives people more daily physical activity and reduces ambient air pollution and climate emissions. Better air quality, in turn, improves the environment for walking and biking, creating a virtuous cycle.

Shifting food systems to emphasize fresh, locally grown, mostly plant-based foods and resilient, sustainable farming practices offers not only healthier diets but also cleaner air, water and soil. Urban planning and design strategies are vital, too, and there is a significant body of knowledge on planning cities and designing buildings and neighborhoods to support walkability, reduce energy and water use, mitigate urban heat island effects, increase social connectivity and more.

Climate change offers the chance for a “global transformation for public health,” but unaddressed, climate change threatens to roll back 50 years of gains in global health and development, according to the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change. A warming planet is already making air quality worse, contributing to famine, exposing populations to extreme heat and ramping up extreme weather. If we do not mitigate climate change, its impacts will increasingly overwhelm all of our other efforts to reduce NCDs and improve global health.

The breadth of the joint upstream causes of climate change and NCDs requires a multi-sectoral, policy- and systems-change approach. Reducing the global burden of non-communicable disease is a powerful supporting rationale for pursuing the most important climate strategies — clean energy, sustainable agriculture, good urban design, active transport.