Author: Dr. Ruth Bell, Senior Advisor, UCL Institute of Health Equity.
We must move faster towards more socially-inclusive and more healthy ways of living, moving and consuming that are more sustainable for the planet. The warning signs are well-chronicled and wide-ranging on land, in the sea and in the air; to name just a few: the toll in lives lost and people left homeless in the wake of Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, over 400 people dead following the catastrophic mudslide on the outskirts of Freetown in Sierra Leone, the 75% drop in insect populations in German nature reserves, the bleaching of coral in the Great Barrier Reef, one in eight of deaths globally due to air pollution. The poorer and more disadvantaged groups in our societies suffer the most from environmental, social and economic inequalities. Health suffers as a consequence, especially the health of those at the lower end of the social gradient.
Countries, cities, communities and individuals are taking action.
There are grounds for optimism. The UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDG) are a global action plan to address the world’s most pressing environmental, economic, social, and health challenges by 2030. Reducing inequality (SDG 10) is central to improving health and environmental sustainability. At the European level, interlinked policy initiatives including Health 2020, the European policy for health and wellbeing, and the EU Environment and Health Process, provide frameworks for change and emphasise the need for cooperation among sectors as well as political commitment to develop policies that promote environmental sustainability, health and equity. Countries, cities, communities and individuals are taking action, but more needs to be done. Holistic approaches are needed to shape interdisciplinary and intersectoral collaboration.
In this context, INHERIT, an EU HORIZON 2020 funded project, is examining what kind of policies and interventions are needed to encourage and enable lifestyle and behaviour change across Europe to create a triple win: a healthier, more inclusive and environmentally sustainable future. Within the areas of living, moving and consuming INHERIT focuses on four themes: increasing availability and access to green spaces, energy efficient housing, healthy and more sustainable diet and less waste, and active modes of transport. There is growing evidence for synergies between health and the environmental benefits in these areas. More needs to be done to ensure that avoidable social inequalities in the way people live, move and consume are tackled.
Societies can create the conditions for positive change – small changes can make a big difference.
Green spaces in urban areas support biodiversity, buffer against high temperatures and heavy rainfall – increasing access and use of green spaces have obvious health benefits. Domestic heating accounts for 25% of Europe’s total energy use; increasing energy efficiency in housing can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and impact respiratory and mental health especially among groups who are more likely to be exposed to cold and damp housing. Eating more vegetables and fewer processed meat products supports health, and can contribute to reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food production chain from farm to fork. Increasing healthy dietary patterns across the whole of society, especially among those less likely to be able to afford healthy foods, will contribute to health equity. Increasing active transport through encouraging walking, cycling, and replacing car use by energy efficient public transport will increase opportunities for physical activity and improve air quality with greater impacts for lower socioeconomic groups.
We know that individual capabilities and motivations as well as opportunities in the social and physical environment are key drivers of behaviour. Societies can create the conditions for positive change – small changes can make a big difference.