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OPINION: The climate emergency is a public health emergency, for which there is no vaccine

by Pascal Soriot | AstraZeneca
Saturday, 12 June 2021 12:03 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Vials labelled "Astra Zeneca COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine" and a syringe are seen in front of a displayed AstraZeneca logo, in this illustration photo taken March 14, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen how governments, business, academics and the public can come together in solidarity - the same is needed to tackle climate change

Pascal Soriot is Chief Executive Officer of AstraZeneca.

This week, I was fortunate to meet with leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) nations to discuss climate change.

For the first time, CEOs were invited to a G7 Summit to explore how to build a sustainable future. Together, we were representatives of a group convened by HRH The Prince of Wales on behalf of his Sustainable Markets Initiative which includes over 300 organisations worldwide.

Representing the health sector, I had the opportunity to offer some reflections and lessons learned through the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the power of collaboration between public and private partners; the great sense of urgency in tackling the crisis; and what science and technology can achieve.

We have seen how governments, business, academics and the public can come together in solidarity. Public-private partnerships have delivered innovation at pace and scale across the world with diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, and digital technologies have demonstrated huge benefits to society. Meanwhile, we’ve been confronted by the impact of the fragility of our healthcare systems. 

The next impending shock to our global systems, the climate crisis, has the potential to be greater still, damaging our planet irreversibly. The climate emergency is a public health emergency, for which there is no vaccine and no one is immune. It will only be by working together that we can drive sustainability and resilience. 

Already, the threat to human health from the climate crisis is rising. We’re witnessing increases in chronic conditions including heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and respiratory diseases, all of which are having a detrimental impact on people’s lives, economies and the societies in which we live. The climate crisis is also disrupting ecosystems, challenging us to think more sustainably about land and natural resource use, without which we will see dramatic consequences for society and biodiversity.

For 50 years, the Prince of Wales has been unwavering in his advocacy of the need to protect the planet and nature, and his calls to action are gaining significant global traction - across business and government. We must urgently do more to decouple business and economic growth from natural resource use and break our reliance on fossil fuels. 

And the healthcare sector has a critical role to play here, currently contributing to over 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We must accelerate the transition to low-carbon and more sustainable solutions – by reimagining healthcare in a low-carbon world. This will require health systems and the industry as a whole to come together and invest differently – in prevention, early detection and screening, as well as digital healthcare. 

At AstraZeneca, we launched our Ambition Zero Carbon strategy 18 months ago, before COVID-19 hit. We are on track to achieving our ambition of zero-carbon emissions from our global operations by 2025 and ensuring our value chain is carbon negative by 2030.

We’ve already reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 60% since 2015, without carbon offsetting, and last year, over 99% of our purchased electricity came from renewable sources – so it can be done. 

In total, we’ve committed $1bn to tackling the climate crisis. Not because of regulatory or legislative requirements, but because it is the right thing to do, and because this is a good investment for our company. Technological advancements are such that investments in sustainability can be profitable and will support long-term growth.

We’re also putting nature-based solutions at the heart of our sustainability strategy – through our AZ Forest programme we’re planting 50 million trees by 2025. This tree planting will help support the restoration of ecosystems, partnerships with local communities and jobs and skills creation.  

At AstraZeneca, as the COVID-19 pandemic began, we knew we could not stand on the sidelines and watch. We had to do something for the public good and put people before profit. The same is true for the climate emergency – here, we need to protect our planet as well as our people.

The G7 Leaders’ Summit 2021 is an important stepping-stone for the world if we’re to accelerate coordinated, concrete and large-scale action to avoid the next great global crisis. The G20 in Rome in October and COP26 in Glasgow in November are also critical milestones. 

The need for international collaboration has never been greater. The future of our world is at stake and we all have a responsibility to prioritise sustainability and environmental commitments, to give ourselves and the planet the best chance of a healthy future. Collaboration between governments and the private sector, a sense of urgency to tackle the crisis, and a belief in science and technology to deliver solutions, have never been more important.