Climate change: a global healthcare challenge

December 16, 2015

The links between climate change and health must be addressed, says GSK’s Matt Wilson. Will the Paris Agreement be a turning point?


As a science-led global healthcare company, our mission is to improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer.

It is widely known that climate change leads to rises in global temperatures, which bring about extremes in storms, drought, flooding and heat waves. These in turn lead to many indirect impacts including air pollution, water quality and land change. As a direct result of this, we recognise that climate change will also exacerbate health issues, and increase stress on healthcare systems, presenting challenges to those efforts being made by the global community to tackle health concerns and inequalities across the world.

Earlier this year, the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change outlined the clear evidence on the link between climate change and health, specifically in relation to respiratory, cardiovascular, infectious, water born diseases as well as, the overall impact on mental health. A global team of experts from a number of fields, including medicine and economics, led by University College London, were involved in the report and suggested that the climate change threat was so great, it could undermine the gains made in global health developments over the past 50 years.

It is clear that climate change is set to alter disease patterns and bring new illnesses to unprotected communities. More frequent extreme weather events will also require more provision for disaster relief and the need for robust business supply chain and distribution networks that can withstand such disruption. So, whether it is heat waves, other extreme weather events or the spread of infectious diseases – or even the indirect effects through factors such as forced migration and crop failures – action is clearly needed to avert the direct health impacts of climate change.

Seeing the adoption of the Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) at the UN Summit in New York in September was a key event for all of us working in health. While each of the new 17 global goals is focused on a different issue, health underpins almost every one of them, as it enables – or is enabled – by advances in population health. The fact that many of the goals overlap and are interdependent in nature is also interesting for us, given this also serves to emphasise the strong links between climate change and health.

And there are more considerations:

  1. If we are to develop and supply the vaccines, medicines and consumer health products needed in the future we must conserve and protect the natural environment.
  1. We also have to be careful that in supplying one patient with his or her needs, we are not indirectly exacerbating the problem, whether through the raw materials, manufacture, supply or patient/consumer usage our products.

So, for our part, we have a clear role to play. As such, we have set ambitious goals to reduce carbon, water and waste across our entire value chain; from the sourcing of our raw materials and the impacts of our own labs and factories, to the use and disposal of our products by patients and consumers.

These targets we have set are significant and tough. We want to be carbon neutral across our value chain by 2050. Embarking on this journey some five years ago, we have reduced energy consumption in our direct operations by 9% and our carbon footprint by 20%; representing over 1 million tonnes of CO2e. We are investing in energy efficiency, cleaner energy generation (combined heat and power), renewable energy (solar and wind), using waste for energy and reducing the amount of coal we consume by 60%. Almost a third of our footprint sits in our supply chain; thousands of suppliers spread across more than 100 countries. So we have developed a platform to drive collaboration and innovation among suppliers to our manufacturing and R&D divisions globally. They are sharing and taking forward practical ideas to improve energy efficiency and reduce environmental impacts.

All good progress but we know we can do more. In just five years’ time, we want to have reduced our overall carbon footprint by 25%. And we recognise that we cannot do this wholly by ourselves.

Partnership and co-ordination will then be essential if we are to make the individual and collective changes so urgently needed. Post-COP 21, we wish to join other key stakeholders – government, business and civil society – in a dialogue around innovation, research and other actions we can individually and collectively take to reduce the impact of climate change on health.

All of this confirms just how much the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris is a ‘turning point’ for the climate and how critical it is that an agreement is reached. Specifically, we highlight the responsibility shared by both business and Governments in recognising that climate change poses an enormous threat to the health and wellbeing of all citizens, irrespective of how established and technologically advanced the health infrastructure of any one country is.


Matt Wilson is Head of Environmental Sustainability at GSK.