Biodiversity and Health in the face of Climate Change – how far are we?

by Dr. Kristina Raab

The most recent 4th European Conference on Biodiversity and Climate Change was themed ‘Biodiversity and Health in the face of Climate Change: Challenges, opportunities and evidence gaps' and was held in Bonn from 27-29 June 2017. It was jointly organised by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) and the European Network of Heads of Nature Conservation Agencies (ENCA) in co-operation with the Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) / German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv). The event was also co-sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe.

Thanks to an impressive line-up of speakers, the topics were elucidated and discussed from a variety of perspectives. Many of the talks focused on ‘green spaces’ in the broadest sense of the word and mostly in urban areas - probably a result of the European, hence developed, highly urbanised context focus of the conference. Only rarely did speakers actually address/link all three fields mentioned in the conference title, illustrating the current disconnect between the three fields. This underscored the necessity of holding this conference to bridge between the different (research/practice) communities.

Discussions included a participant suggesting and requesting the setting up in Europe of a centre akin to the US American NCEAS (National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis). Many important discoveries and developments are made in such an integrative research setting and it allows for better linking of previously disparate fields. Another suggestion made during the discussions was to employ a more radical approach to transforming the health sector - away from focusing on pathologies to a real focus on health, as defined by the WHO: ‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.

The EEA representative sent the message that policy has ample awareness for the interlinkages between health, biodiversity and climate change, but has no practice in actually linking these realms. He also underlined the necessity for conference participants and the public at large to become more active in contributing to policy design. In the context of policy development becoming more open/participative, taking up responsibility as citizens, and being solutions-driven, can have a larger impact than in the past.

The ENCA network will, based on the participatory parts of the conference, make recommendations to governments. These recommendations are for ‘creating synergies between ongoing policy processes, scientific programmes and practical implementation of nature conservation measures in European urban and rural areas to support health measures in the face of a changing climate’. Indeed, the programme was divided into three main parts (day 1: science, day 2: practice and implementation, day 3: policy and economy) with day two containing interactive workshop sessions aimed at bundling/extracting the knowledge of participants on related themes (such as: “Psychological effects of nature and biodiversity”, “Linking initiatives in biodiversity, health and policy” and “Nature-based solutions for health and social equity”.)

WHO launched its action brief on urban green spaces during the conference, which highlights the many benefits of green spaces for urban residents (NB some points are also relevant for rural areas), such as: health, well-being and exposure to nature; but also the reduction of environmental hazards, mitigation of impacts of extreme weather events. 

During most of the conference, the effects of biodiversity on human health here were largely reduced to urban areas (and sometimes parks), where many studies linking green spaces and mental/physical health have been carried out to date. This also supports the point made by a conference speaker that nature is no longer part of everyday/work life, but increasingly separate from it and being used for restoration purposes, leading to an overall lack of restoration effects from nature in daily life.

The problematic of decreasing daily interaction of (urban) people with nature was also addressed by a speaker reporting that the ratio of breeding birds to humans in Europe has fallen from 46/1 to 3/1 over the past decades. While human population growth accounts for some of this change, there has also been a strong decrease in common bird populations across Europe (rare birds, in contrast, fare relatively well due to protection measures). This leads to a decrease of the number of species that can provide natural experiences to people, a decrease in nearby/direct nature experiences, a decrease in indirect (e.g. through windows) nature experiences and a decrease in nature doses. The ‘dose-response’ of a person to nature, which was the focus of several studies in urban areas, is very dependent on where people came from before going into nature and this is not always sufficiently taken into account. Furthermore, among all studies presented, very few studies actually characterized the green spaces they analysed in terms of what type or components of ‘nature’ they represent with regard to biodiversity. Are effects of a green space with many trees equal to that of only grass? Or equal to that with a diverse range of plant and animal species, or many colourful elements, or different textures? This seems to be a dimension that the conference identified as worthy of further research and could have a big impact on the discussion around how to zone green spaces in urban areas (‘sparing or sharing’: keeping nature separate in likely larger areas or making it available in small batches in many places). Information relating to these questions would be highly relevant also in supporting local landscape planners.

Overall, the effects of biodiversity on human health are of course varied, and under climate change, the changes in patterns of vector-borne diseases (e.g. malaria) are one of the obvious consequences to consider. Biodiversity has positive effects (e.g. restoration effects of green spaces in urban areas) and negative effects (e.g. inducing allergies) on health, both of which are affected by climate change (e.g. cooling effect of green areas in hotter weather; or changes in distribution of allergenic species). The idea of co-benefits of biodiversity for many different aspects of health (e.g. physical activity, mental health) was presented in the context of suggesting that a more holistic approach to these themes is needed.

The policy context and implications of biodiversity and health and climate change were addressed, inter alia, by a member of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the importance of microbiota was underlined, as this had received little to no coverage at the conference. The integration of different policy agendas is of course of critical importance and one of the big question is how can we decrease the inequalities between rich and poor via the environment? How can we respond to climate change in a way that is equigenetic, i.e. generating more equality rather than exacerbating inequalities? In light of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, these are certainly very relevant questions that deserve increased attention in the research and policy communities.

Conference participants’ health had clearly been a topic of reflection by the organisers, as they provided the opportunity for joint walks before the start of the programme each day (sadly, the weather did not cooperate). Some shortfalls in the health considerations were apparent though, with day 1 having a 10h programme mainly consisting of listening to frontal presentations indoors, followed by a more relaxing reception. In a context where sitting is considered to be the new smoking, this is not an ideal set-up. Furthermore, the nutritional value of the vegetarian lunches was questionable with 2-3 starchy dishes (yes, there was variety: pasta, potatoes, grains) being provided, but very little to nothing in the way of fresh (or cooked) vegetables, or fruit. My personal take-away is that conference organisers who take the health benefits/costs of participants attending their conference into account are likely to be the pioneers in the field. Integrating walks or movement breaks into the programme (rather than as an element added to the already packed programme) would have my support, esp. if, weather-permitting, these are relegated to outdoors…as these easily allow for discussions and networking during minimal/moderate physical activity (and possibly fresh air!). The conference dinner was extremely tasty and varied, incl. with fresh vegetables, though not vegetarian. It was held outdoors, and with active entertainment, so lots of benefits of staying up late to enjoy it and the great company at the conference!