With health impacts of the climate crisis being felt worldwide, there is a growing call for the private sector to step up. In this blog, Forum’s International Managing Director, Hannah Pathak explores how the private sector can transform its products, services and practices to address this complex dual challenge of climate and health.

The private sector has long been both creative and fast-moving when it comes to addressing societal challenges. Whether it’s an innovation that’s core to its purpose, such as designing vehicles to meet mobility and transportation needs—for example, Henry Ford designing a car that was simple, affordable and reliable—or a company pivoting its core expertise in a crisis, such as a logistics company like DHL delivering humanitarian aid following a disaster, or luxury fashion houses using their skills, supply chains, and expertise in production to make personal protective equipment during COVID-19.

Whilst the private sector responding to meeting the needs of society is not new, what is shifting is the increasing number of businesses that are establishing or reframing their purpose around tackling social and environmental needs, and ensuring that they don’t create or exacerbate social or environmental problems through their operations. By mid-2022 there were more than 5,000 B Corps worldwide - businesses that had gone through the rigorous B Corps certification programme to become part of a global private sector community working towards a more “inclusive, equitable and regenerative economic system.”

An opportunity for the private sector to step up

At the intersection of climate change and human health sits a complex challenge, which the private sector is uniquely positioned to address. The World Bank states that, “There is no doubt that climate change is profoundly unjust.” Human activity, predominantly in the global north, is the cause of the climate crisis. Human health everywhere, but particularly in the global south, is suffering as a result. Air pollution driving respiratory disease; extreme heat that cannot be tolerated by the human body; floods causing loss of life and livelihoods but also the secondary risks of water-borne diseases—this is an intersection where the human impacts of climate change are stark.

The level of transformation that the private sector must contribute to is immense. But incremental change simply will not do anymore. We also cannot afford further unintended consequences such as the plastic waste problem caused by pandemic facemasks, or the carbon emissions resulting in over a century of cars. An integrated, systemic approach to tackling global challenges is needed.

The private sector needs to work to “raise the floor”—the minimum standards that all must follow—and “raise the ceiling”---the level of ambition and leadership set by trail-blazers that inspires others to follow suit. 

How can the private sector address the dual crises of climate and health?

In November 2022, the Climate and Health Coalition published “Driving Co-benefits for Climate and Health; 2022 update - how the private sector can accelerate progress” The guidance contains practical information and recommendations for business leaders across all sectors.

The guidance explores how all businesses can shape change across their spheres of control, influence and concern:

  • Direct operations: businesses can work to reduce their emissions, retrofit buildings, and encourage biodiversity on their sites.

  • Employment: As employers, they can support behavioural changes such as active travel-to-work schemes, as well as commit to fair pay and conditions to support the kind of socioeconomic resilience that is key to climate adaptation.

  • Products and services: Businesses can consider the carbon, environmental and health outcomes of product design and better educate consumers to make informed choices. 

  • Supply chains: Businesses can work to reduce emissions, build climate adaptive capacity, and support nature and biodiversity. They can embed fair labour practices to tackle social inequality and build resilience, and ensure that actions to tackle social challenges do not create environmental challenges, and vice versa. 

  • Wider enabling environment: Businesses can also work to change the wider enabling environment—the playing field— by advocating for changes to national laws that require all businesses to deliver social and environmental benefits as well as profit. Through advocacy, they can contribute to the growing calls for “beyond GDP” approaches to measuring societal progress. Businesses can come together—in the “pre-competitive” space—to collaborate on shared challenges such as plastic waste. 

Four sectors with high potential for impact

The guidance explores how certain sectors have a particularly important role to play at the climate-health intersection: those that have a disproportionate impact on determinants of health. This includes the food, technology, health and built environment sectors. 

  • Food: The food sector is responsible for 20- 30% of global carbon emissions and significant biodiversity loss through intensive farming practices, which have also been linked to a rise in zoonotic disease. Yet, over 820 million people are malnourished. Many interventions for a climate-friendly food system provide opportunities to improve health equity and biodiversity, and create a viable and profitable market that fairly distributes value. 

  • Technology: Access to increasingly vast amounts of data, sophisticated analysis tools, and the ubiquity of digital technologies means the tech sector has a unique opportunity to develop transformative tools that can help solve integrated health and climate challenges.

  • Built environment: The construction sector has a considerable emissions profile, accounting for 37% of energy related CO2 emissions and is currently not on track for decarbonisation by 2050. In high-income countries the primary challenge is retrofitting inefficient building stock; in developing countries, where building stock is expected to double by 2050, integrating health and climate innovations into future planning, design and construction will be key.

  • Healthcare: The healthcare sector has an estimated climate footprint equivalent to 4.4% of global net carbon emissions, over 70% of which is estimated to be in its supply chain and investments. By virtue of its products and services, the sector can play a critical role in designing climate adaptation strategies and building resilient health systems that provide equitable access to care. It should demonstrate leadership by advocating for climate policy that supports preventative health care, and mobilising its employees, healthcare professionals, and health institutions as trusted climate communicators.

While there are multiple solutions and transitions already in play, it’s clear that there is simply no more time for delays or unintended consequences. As momentum builds for COP28, it’s time for the private sector to harness all its ingenuity, adaptability and power to address the climate and health crises. 

Find out more about the Climate and Health Coalition

Download Driving Co-benefits for Climate and Health; 2022 update - how the private sector can accelerate progress