A group of global experts are warning business leaders that unbridled economic growth in many leading economies will have disastrous economic and social consequences and lead to irreversible environmental destruction.

The group, convened by Oxford University’s Emerging Markets Symposium (EMS) of leading economists, scientists, policy-makers and entrepreneurs from around the world, has published a report calling on political and business leaders to reverse the traditional economic consensus that environmental initiatives harm economic growth and business. Instead, it recommends that they:

• Explore innovative ways to invest in transitions to low-carbon and health-friendly economies, working with institutions such as the World Bank and regional development banks.

• Develop new sources of financing, including ‘climate finance’ from high-income countries to help emerging markets and others adapt to climate change, and support the upfront investments needed to switch to renewable energy.

• Strengthen corporate governance in emerging markets so they too can grow faster by focusing on eco-innovation.

The report, Environmental health in emerging markets, states that while rapid economic growth has generated unprecedented improvements in human welfare in recent decades, many policies that continue to maximise growth without enforcing environmental controls are now reaching a point of diminishing social returns.

Economic and human health

New research shows companies focusing on eco-innovation in Europe are growing at an annual rate of 15 per cent, at a time when many of their competitors are struggling.

However, the report notes, global environmental threats are posing an increasingly acute danger to human health - especially in major emerging markets such as China and India, but also in the world at large:

• According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 23% of deaths worldwide are due to modifiable environmental factors - most prominently air pollution, which is the single greatest cause of disease and death in poorer countries and emerging markets. A number of studies have now documented how emissions from public and domestic energy systems combine in fine particles that penetrate the lungs, causing heart and lung disease, cancers and an increased risk of dementia.

• Air pollution alone accounts for around seven million deaths worldwide: outdoor air pollution is responsible for some three million deaths a year and a further four million deaths occur as a result of household air pollution. These figures compare with 1.1 million deaths in 2015 from HIV-related illnesses, and just over 11,000 deaths in the most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, both of which rightly attracted significant global attention and funding.

• The World Bank estimated air pollution cost the world economy some US$ 225 billion in lost labour income alone in 2013; and health-related economic losses from haze in the city of Beijing amounted to US$ 3.7 billion in just one month.

The economist, Jeffrey D Sachs, Professor at Columbia University and Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, warns: “A quarter of all deaths worldwide are currently directly or indirectly attributed to environmental ill health. We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand. Increasing air and water pollution, the spread of new diseases, and drug-resistant infections are already crippling our health and social systems. Urgent and radical action is needed, including investing significantly in preventing environmental health challenges, changing the way we grow and produce food, and, of course, switching to renewable energy sources.”

Priorities

The report calls for radical changes in political priorities, as well as individual behaviour to reduce the heavy death toll from environmental depletion and degradation.

Agricultural pollution from livestock waste and nitrogen-rich fertilizers, is now said to outweigh all other human sources of fine-particulate air pollution in many countries.

Intensive farming is also said to be a driving force in the decline of bio-diversity, be it through excessive use of antibiotics in intensive livestock production, deforestation in emerging markets or through toxic gas emissions from meat production.

Another example cites an analysis of water usage that estimates that households accounted for 81 per cent of the total use of fresh water reserves, though many households lack information on how to reduce their environmental impact.

Professor Rainer Sauerborn, Director of the Institute of Public Health at the University of Heidelberg, comments: “We have to stop worrying about the costs of reducing environmental pollution and start being concerned about the immeasurably higher human and financial costs of not doing what is needed. For example, there is no good reason for us to continue to rely on animals as a main source of protein when plant-based alternatives are both more beneficial to our health and our environment.

“If appropriate action is taken to reduce environmental risks," he added, "up to 30 per cent of cardiovascular diseases and lower respiratory infections, 50% of diarrhoeal diseases and 20 per cent of cancers can be prevented.”

The report urges global leaders, including in China, India and Europe, as well as local authorities and businesses across the world, to join together to implement and build on the Paris Agreement, an important milestone not only in climate change but potentially also in the history of public health.

 

Recommendations for future action include:

Global leadership: Creating a new global coalition of government, business, civil society and individuals to develop a strategic vision of a long-term equilibrium between economic activities and natural systems; such a coalition should also lay the ground for binding global agreements to ensure better management of immediate environmental threats to people’s health and well-being.

National governments: Redressing current inadequate tax and subsidy systems that work against environmental and health improvements – in 2015, for example, the International Monetary Fund estimated that fossil fuel companies benefitted from global subsidies of US$ 5.3 trillion, over half of the total health spending of all governments; doubling the share of renewable energy by 2030, thereby not only reducing air pollution-related disease but also creating 24 million jobs and increasing global GDP by 1.1 per cent; adopting a broad ‘one health’ system that includes both the social and environmental determinants of health; and increasing the current meager percentages of health budgets currently spent on prevention (just 3 per cent, even in wealthy OECD countries) to assist in achieving the WHO-proposed goal of reducing non-communicable diseases by 25 per cent by 2025.

Local authorities: Supporting the role of local leaders as vehicles of change.

Civil society: Exploring new forms of collaboration between international non-governmental organizations and national organizations in emerging markets to strengthen the case for change locally.

Media: Urging mainstream and social media companies to take on more pro-active roles as gatekeepers in the face of campaigns led by particular vested interests that aim to undermine facts or disseminate ‘alternative facts’ (fake news).