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COP28 Health Day: A crucial moment to recognise ageing populations in climate action

As world leaders and government officials gather to discuss climate action at COP28, Age International Policy Advisors Kate Horstead and Kayla Arnold explore the impact of climate change on global health, and why current systems must adapt to meet the needs of older people:

This year's global climate conference marks a pivotal shift in discussions; for the first time, health will be at the heart of climate talks with a designated 'Health Day' taking place at the Conference of Parties (COP28).

This day will spotlight the urgent need for health sector adaptation, climate-resilience, and 
how climate, 
health, peace, and humanitarian support work together in the move towards Net Zero. This is an important moment to ensure that the health needs of increasingly ageing populations are addressed in the global climate action agenda.  

The climate crisis presents significant threats to the health of older people and with population ageing it is crucial that these risks are addressed during COP28 discussions - and that they stay firmly on the agenda afterwards. 

In 2022, devastating floods in Pakistan highlighted the disproportionate impact climate change has on older people, with millions facing heightened risks of disease and struggling in harsh conditions. When winter came, older women like Naheed, 60, who may be more susceptible to risks from temperature extremes, struggled greatly as they were forced to live in the open air in temperatures as low as 1 degree celsius.

Older people’s health needs, alongside others’, should be high in any health policy agenda but cannot be taken for granted. During negotiations for Universal Health Coverage we had to advocate strongly for health care that meets the needs of older people. 

At COP28, governments will be urged to endorse the COP28 Declaration on Climate and Health, emphasising collaboration between climate and health sectors, increased financing, and emissions reductions in the health sector. Recognising the impacts of climate change on global health, especially amidst population ageing, is crucial for a dignified older age. 

"Before the floods we had a good living, despite our very poor circumstances. I have been unable to earn a living for at least four months. I am living in a shelter in front of my damaged mud house. I lost my farming land, as well as many of my livestock. My wife fainted and sometimes suffers from trauma. Sometimes I have nightmares and my wife is anxious and depressed since the floods. May some one come to help us with livestock, shelter, and health care."

Khathoor, 80, Pakistan

By 2050, one in five people will be over the age of 60, with the majority of older people living in low and middle-income countries facing the most devasting impacts of climate changePreparing for a future amidst the climate crisis requires planning that includes an increasing number of older people. Health systems must adapt to extreme weather, strengthen resilience for at-risk groups, and prepare for potential disruption. 

Unfortunately, older people’s voices and rights have traditionally been marginalised in COP and climate discussions, overlooking their unique health concerns, diverse knowledge and expertise. Recognising the contributions older individuals make to families and communitiesand addressing their health needs now is essential to build resilience for future generations into climate planning.  

How does climate change impact older people’s health? 

Climate change poses severe health threats for older individuals, from heat-related conditions to infectious diseases and mental health challenges. Some risks include degrading environments disrupting food and water supplies, worsening air quality triggering heat-related issues, trauma and stress affecting mental health, and increased vulnerability to extreme weather events. 

"We don't have clean air to breathe. The impact of high levels of [pollution] for older people and their communities is significant. 

The government encourages older people to stay indoors to avoid the pollution, a form of self-isolation that makes life hard for them."

Sawang, 75, Thailand

Addressing these impacts not only upholds older people's right to health but also benefits entire communities. Older individuals, especially women, often play a crucial role in agriculture and community work, and creating healthy environments supports overall wellbeing.  

As Sawang’s story shows, actions to combat climate change have real implications for older people's health, exacerbating existing inequalities and affecting their ability to engage in their communities. For example, integrating age-friendly features into urban design not only supports the wellbeing of older individuals by providing accessible infrastructure, but also supports community engagement and enhances overall healthy populations. 

No climate and health equity without older people: opportunities for COP28 and beyond

Global health systems must evolve to meet the basic needs of older people. Governments must build age-responsive, climate-resilient health systems, recognizing that climate change affects everyone's health differently. To create a truly inclusive response, older people must be meaningfully included in policies and discussions. 

For the Health Day at COP28 to create opportunities for all future generations, we should: 

  • Promote intergenerational and multigenerational action on climate and health across the life course, as recognised by the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing
  • Increase coherence between climate policies and health policies, by incorporating climate into all health policies and vice versa
  • Explicitly include older people and people with disabilities in climate data, research, adaptation and mitigation efforts, and humanitarian response
  • Ensure climate-resilient health facilities and long-term care facilities are built into adaptation plans
  • Promote training of community healthcare providers on how to deal with climate sensitive health concerns for people of all ages

Recognising the connections between the climate crisis, health, and population aging is essential for shaping a future that addresses both demographic and climate trends. Taking an intergenerational and multigenerational approach to climate and health is the key to a sustainable future.

There is a small window to act to limit the worst damages of the climate crisis, including to health and wellbeing; including older people is essential to the resilience of all generations, now and in the future.

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