6th NTS-Asia Consortium Annual Conference: Planetary Health and Managing Converging Risks in Asia

The NTS Centre hosted the 6th NTS-Asia Consortium Annual Conference on 6th April 2022 in Singapore. It brought together members of the Consortium to exchange views on different interpretations of and responses to the concept of planetary health, specific risks to planetary health in each country, and existing and/or hypothetical measures to operationalise the concept.

As scientists and scholars attempt to explain the start and spread of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of planetary health has started to gain more attention. The concept focuses on how human-induced changes in our Earth’s systems impact hu-man health and well-being. It encourages systemic change that focuses on environmental protection and conservation as the overarching guiding
principle across different sectors.

The pandemic has reinforced the relevance of the environment-human health nexus. The emergence and spread of zoonotic viruses can be traced back to activities such as habitat fragmentation, deforestation, biodiversity loss, intensive agriculture and live-stock farming, uncontrolled urbanisation, pollution, climate change, and bushmeat hunting and trading. Biodiversity loss arising from climate change and environmental degradation also enables easier transmission of pathogens from animals to humans.

How then can we improve the health of our ecosystems and prevent the next global pandemic?

Recognising converging risks that pose threats to the health of the planet be-comes an important starting point.

Aside from existing environ-mental issues such as pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity loss, other activities such as wars, international trade, urban development, pandemic response, and humanitarian action, among others, like-wise affect the environment. These need to be managed simultaneously to mitigate their overall impacts on planetary health.

As the adage goes, prevention is better than cure. Scholars have suggested that it costs substantially less to implement pandemic preventive efforts as compared to the economic and mortality costs of responding to these pathogens once they have emerged. The estimated spending needed over the next 10 years to prevent a future pandemic is just 2% of the total costs accrued during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, instead of implementing reactive policies and initiatives after a crisis event, governments and policymakers should adopt a more proactive approach to-wards managing future risks.

The COVID-19 crisis has further underscored the need for a system-level thinking approach towards planetary health. A multi-sector, multi-scalar, and multi-stakeholder approach that brings together different nodes of environmental and health policies should be prioritised. This can take the form of co-production and sharing of knowledge, joint monitoring and review, and networking and integration between different levels of governance. Epistemic communities, civil society, businesses, health providers all have important roles to play in pushing forth this agenda and operationalising the planetary health concept in their respective fields.

There should be increased efforts to educate populations on the importance of environmental protection. This can be complemented by more robust urban planning and population (movement) management, with such efforts targeted at reducing habitat loss, promoting sustain-able land-use, and decreasing deforestation.

Policymakers also need to strengthen climate resilience in our societies by promoting greater synergies between cli-mate, biodiversity, and health initiatives. This involves working towards decreasing carbon emissions, addressing socio-economic inequalities to improve health and well-being of populations, and ensuring that planetary boundaries are not crossed.