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Climate and Nature

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the conclusion of the recent editorial by over 200 global health journals in The Lancet of 25 October, that the climate and nature crisis is “a global health emergency”; and what plans they have to address this.

My Lords, the UK recognises that climate change, biodiversity loss and risk due to zoonotic diseases are intrinsically linked. This is why we advocate for a multi- sectoral, one-health approach to global health, to protect nature and deliver climate-resilient and sustainable healthcare systems.

As the Minister has indicated, the relationship between climate change and health is complex. I ask him, however, about action on heat stress here in the UK. The Lancet’s latest report on the issue indicated that heat stress deaths are predicted to increase by 370%. Here in the UK last year, heat stress deaths increased by 42%. Can the Minister say what action the Government are taking to ensure that the design of new homes includes ensuring that homes do not overheat? What action is being taken to ensure that public buildings also do not overheat?

Well, I know briefs go widely, but I think it would be best if I first give a personal anecdote. I absolutely get what the noble Baroness is saying. This summer, when homes are meant for insulation, I think we all felt the challenges and I think we need to look specifically at how we design homes, particularly in the community, and how we design offices. As someone who sits in a rather grand building not far from here, quite often the challenge, when the heat is on outside, is that it is extremely hot inside, and when it is cold outside, the heat does not come on—so there are some fundamental challenges in your Lordships’ House as well. I will revert to the noble Baroness when I have talked to colleagues in the department for levelling up, because I think they will have a sense, but I can assure her that the Department of Health, Defra and the FCDO are working together, looking at a one-health approach encompassing the very issues she highlighted.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the real medical crisis in this country is that we have 40 million people moving slowly to a premature death from a variety of very unpleasant diseases because they are putting too many calories into their mouth? Will he kindly try to get the Department of Health to stop its false propaganda saying that we should have a low-fat diet, when we know, and science has proven, that the proper kind of fat in the diet limits the amount of obesity?

The wideness and diversity of my brief has often been talked about: I now feel I am speaking for the Department of Health. I am delighted that my noble friend is on the Front Bench and he will speak with particular insight, but my noble friend who put the question has great expertise himself—his own profession lends itself—and to sum it all up, I totally agree with him.

My Lords, climate change is already having a material effect on malaria transmission. Forecasts suggest that owing to a rise in global temperatures, transmission seasons could be up to five months longer by 2070. Already, malaria rates in Mozambique are at their highest since the current reporting phase began in 2017. More than 70% of anti- malaria drugs used in Africa are imported, so what is the international community doing, and what are we doing, to stimulate local manufacture of drugs to ensure that weaknesses in the international supply chain do not result in preventable deaths?

The noble Lord is correct and I can assure him, from our experience of the Covid pandemic, that we are working in collaboration with India on global health generally but specifically on malaria. We welcome India in tackling global health threats and the whole issue of malaria is something we are looking at specifically, based on our research, in terms of collaboration with India on manufacturing. Indeed, two of the main vaccines currently being developed for malaria are actually UK research based.

My Lords, with regard to global health and climate change—I am sorry it is health again —the latter is having a huge impact on insect-borne diseases of both humans and animals. Malaria has been mentioned, but another very specific threat is that of dengue viral disease in humans, which is no longer confined to the tropics. Indeed, there was an endemic outbreak in people in the Paris region only two to three months ago. So I ask the Minister, although it may be a bit outside his brief, what preparations His Majesty’s Government are making to prepare for, detect and hopefully prevent incursions of similar insect-borne infections into the UK.

My Lords, it is not just my brief, it is my department. I agree with the noble Lord. When we look not just at malaria but at the spread of dengue fever, I know this for myself because a member of my own family sadly and tragically was infected and then died from dengue fever. We are working in this respect. The noble Lord is correct. We have seen those infections, those transported diseases, very much in evidence now in the UK. The rare and imported pathogens laboratory at Porton Down has accredited, reliable tests for dengue and other infections and we are working with partners and local authorities. We had a question just now about heat as well, and it is notable that, even at a local level in southern England, we have found invasive mosquito vectors appearing on six occasions. That reflects how global transmission is very much a reality, but we do have laboratories very much at the front end of our research to address these issues.

My Lords, the biggest impact on global health is disasters caused by climate change. I know the noble Lord is very aware, because we debated it 10 years ago, of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, agreed by the UN in 2015. Although there was a chapter in the international development White Paper on climate change impact and what we would do, there was sadly no mention of the specific impact that the Sendai framework can have. Can he reassure me that this Government are focused on that, to ensure that we reduce the potential impact of disasters?

I can give the noble Lord that reassurance. I confess that I do not remember the exact detail of our debate 10 years ago, but I am sure that Hansard has recorded it fully. We will have a Statement on the White Paper tomorrow, when I am sure we can amplify some of those lines, but I give him that reassurance. For any kind of challenge posed by climate change, whether weather-based or natural things such as earthquakes and so on, we need a consolidated, collaborative response. That needs to be reflected in our development policy.

My Lords, climate change reduces crop yields and lowers the quality of food. This affects household and global food security, so how are the Government working with global partners to shore up good systems for food resilience?

I agree with the noble Baroness and assure her that we are working on this. As I said in my Answer, we recognise that climate change, biodiversity loss and disease emergence are intrinsically linked. These issues need to be looked at as a whole, not separately. We work with international agencies—including the World Health Organization, which is also looking specifically at climate change and its impact on daily human lives—and we have the COP coming up, which will be an opportunity to discuss climate and its real impact on other aspects of how we go about our daily lives, including issues of food security, food safety and nutrition. As recent events around the world have demonstrated, these climate issues are big causes of conflict. However, nutrition and food security also need to be addressed.

My Lords, to bring the Minister back to his own department, can he confirm whether it has any plans to increase funding for international health observatories that are focused on the early identification of diseases that might affect the United Kingdom?

My Lords, our department is looking at research and evidence bases and has allocated £85 million in this respect. Last night, when I had the real honour of attending the state dinner, I was sitting next to a professor from DSIT who is looking at a cross-government approach to how we bring our research and evidence base together, to ensure that we can act in the very way the noble Lord intends us to do.