COP28, the United Nations climate change conference that concluded last month, included two historical firsts: a Health Day focused on the relationship between climate change and health and a climate-health ministerial, during which ministers of health, environment, finance and other sectors met to address the rapidly growing burden of climate change on healthcare systems.  

That’s significant because climate change isn't just melting glaciers and rising global temperatures; it's the single biggest threat to human health. From heat stress to air pollution-induced respiratory ailments, global warming is causing an epidemic of climate-sensitive diseases. U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry’s quote underscored the urgency, “The reality is that a climate crisis and health crisis are one and the same, totally connected, totally converging at this moment in time.”   [The 2024 Health Trends report addresses the role pharmaceutical companies are playing in climate change. Get the full report here.]

Discussions focused on:

  • Investing in resilient health systems: The increase in climate change-related health effects threatens to swamp healthcare systems already struggling with resource scarcity and access inequities. In fact, 27% of cities surveyed in a Lancet report are concerned their health systems will be overwhelmed by impacts of climate change. Investments in climate-resilient healthcare infrastructure, such as heat-proof hospitals, diversified clinical portfolios, and early warning systems for extreme weather events, are becoming an imperative—not just for human well-being, but for the long-term sustainability of the healthcare ecosystem. 
  • Innovating a way forward: COP28 showcased a kaleidoscope of climate-smart healthcare solutions—think telemedicine reducing carbon footprints of medical travel, solar-powered clinics serving remote communities, and “green” pharmaceuticals minimizing environmental impact. These innovations challenge the notion that profits and environmental health are at odds, pointing to a future where healthcare thrives at the intersection of environmental well-being and business viability. 
  • Maintaining health as a “permanent feature” of the climate agenda: 124 countries signed a new Declaration on Climate and Health to proactively address climate-related health impacts by improving the ability of health systems to anticipate and implement interventions against climate-sensitive diseases and health risks and promote steps to curb carbon emissions and reduce waste in the health sector. Signatories also committed to incorporate health targets in national climate plans and improve international collaboration to address health risks of climate change, including at future COPs.

So, what does this mean for biopharma companies?

Health is increasingly recognized as a critical driver of climate action. Healthcare businesses that understand this reality, and pivot towards prevention and resilience, stand to win not just market share, but leadership in creating a healthier, more sustainable future.  

  • Companies with vaccine, infectious disease, and lung disease portfolios have the biggest opportunity to address the intersection of climate change with these therapeutic areas, sharing actions to prevent and mitigate the impacts, especially on vulnerable communities. 
  • Healthcare firms can join climate mitigation efforts through company-wide climate pledges that they can truly commit to. For example, COP28 called for the reduction of fossil fuels, and biopharma companies can also contribute through supply chain commitments.  
  • For businesses taking steps to reduce their environmental impact, the new year is a great time to review progress with different stakeholders, connecting the dots between environmental sustainability and the company’s long-term sustainability. In addition to annual reports, companies should be sharing their commitments and actions across internal, customer, supplier, and investor channels often, in language that resonates. Consider engaging employees in campaigns and programs focused on environmental sustainability—highlighting why this topic is so directly relevant to those in the healthcare space and sharing tangible changes that can minimize environmental impact. 
  • While climate change poses health threats for everyone, people of color, economically disadvantaged individuals, and other marginalized groups face disproportionate risks due to underlying inequities. Biopharma businesses addressing health inequities must consider climate justice, and vice versa.   
  • Advocacy and professional groups focusing on the connection between health equity and climate justice can be potential partners, or if not engaged earlier, and appropriately, potential activists––challenging healthcare companies to do better, faster.  

For all organizations—especially those in the business of health—taking bold steps to minimize environmental impact, including embracing climate-friendly technologies and advocating for climate-smart policies, is a vital investment in a healthier, more sustainable future. 

Download our 2024 Health Trends report to explore how the pharma industry is grappling with climate change.

About the Author:

Sharon Gordon, MHS leads the Social Impact Practice at Syneos Health, partnering with companies to define and curate their value and impact stories. Sharon helps drive momentum, awareness and recognition of responsibility and sustainability initiatives by shaping companies’ narratives and creative communications. She has expertise in strategy development and articulation, annual reporting, stakeholder engagement, programs and partnerships, advocacy, goal alignment and translation of global strategies to local execution. Sharon has a background in public health, with a Master of Health Science and Certificate in Risk Science and Public Policy from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.