Sustainable development is a broad term to describe policies, projects and investments that provide benefits today without sacrificing environmental, social and personal health in the future. These policies are often described as green because they focus on limiting the impact of development on the environment. However, the benefits of sustainable development are also felt across a wide cross section of human health and well-being, including reductions in pollution- and environment-related disease, improved health outcomes and decreased stress.As the threats of climate change become increasingly important, win-win strategies for mitigation, health improvement and cost savings offer a range of advantages for various stakeholders. For example, greener health care operations can generate patient and worker health benefits while also saving energy, mitigating climate risks and creating long-term cost savings. The World Health Organization is committed to pursuing sustainable development in all its work to help protect the people of tomorrow from the health growing health risks of today.
Many sustainable development strategies can offer significant wins for health, climate and the environment, and the benefits can be seen almost immediately. For example, many health and development goals can be achieved simultaneously by tackling air pollution, which is responsible for an estimated 7 million premature deaths annually. Polluting emissions include powerful short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs)—particularly black carbon, ozone and methane—which are very harmful to health but have only brief atmospheric lifetimes.
Transport policies and investments that favour clean public transport, along with walking and cycling, can have a dramatic impact on air quality. This can reduce multiple health risks at the same time, including stroke, heart attack, lung disease and some cancers. They can also reduce the estimated 1.25 million deaths annually from traffic injury, while also improving access to health services, particularly in densely populated areas.
Sustainable development housing policies can further reduce emissions through considerations such as building siting and land use, choices of construction materials, design features and ventilation and energy.
WHO’s work is guided by the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” The Goals inform projects and policies across the Organization, including guidelines on housing, urban development, transportation systems and health care delivery.
For example, the WHO Housing and health guidelines, first published in 2018, highlight the increasing impact of housing conditions on human health in light of urban growth, climate and demographic changes. The guidelines provide Member States, partners and the public with evidence-based recommendations relevant to inadequate living space (crowding), low and high indoor temperatures, injury hazards in the home, and accessibility of housing for people with functional impairments.
The Urban Health Initiative (UHI) also focuses on ways for cities to enable good health by catalysing effective action on urban air pollution and short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs)—saving lives by linking health, environment and sustainable development. WHO also collaborates with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) on the Breathe Life campaign, which aims to cut air pollution and reduce the 7 million premature deaths annually that it causes.