On 1, December 2021, the United Nations (UN) Friends of Vision Group held a virtual event titled, Eye Health & Climate: Responsible Consumption & Production. The expert panel discussion brought together UN Diplomats and agencies, as well as academics, environmentalist and eye health experts to build upon the critical discussions around climate change, identify where action is needed and draw attention to the fact that climate change and eye health are linked in a cause-and-effect cycle and that threatens to undo decades of progress in global health.
Notable speakers included the UN Friends of Vision Co-Chairs, Ambassador Walton Webson from the Permanent the Mission of Antigua and Barbuda, Ambassador Rabab Fatima from the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh and Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason from the Permanent Mission of Ireland.
A keynote address on building resilient healthcare systems in the face of climate change was given by Mr. Stewart Simonson, the Assistant Director-General for the World Health Organization (WHO). The expert panelists included Dr. Cassandra Thiel from NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Dr. Thulasiraj Ravilla from the Aravind Eye Care System in India. A final Call to Action was provided by Mr. Ian Wishart, CEO of the Fred Hollows Foundation.
Speaking to how climate change is a health issue, not just an environment issue, Ambassadors Fatima and Byrne Nason emphasized that planetary health is key to improving quality of eye care and that environmentally sustainable eye health services are required to make progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Ambassador Byrne Nason stated, “good eye health is key to unlocking human potential.” This is particularly the case for the most climate vulnerable regions and marginalized populations, such as women and indigenous people.
The climate event built upon the work of IAPB’s Climate Action Working Group and looked at the links between eye health and Sustainable Development Goal 12 – responsible consumption and production – and called upon the sector to mitigate its carbon footprint, reduce its environmental impact and support climate resilience.
Highlighting the work she conducted in her study, Dr. Thiel explained how globally, healthcare is responsible for 4.4% of global emissions including unsustainable procurement and poor waste management and revealed that within eye health, the same cataract surgery can yield 30x more emissions in one country than compared to another. She called upon the health care sector, as a substantial consumer of products, to use its influence to encourage more sustainable practices in its own industry, as well as others.
Dr. Ravilla, the Director of Operations at the Aravind Eye Care System – an exemplar in environmentally sustainable and effective practices – explained that “a patient-centric healthcare system will naturally lead to environmentally sustainable practices. By bringing services closer together and closer to the need of the patient, you reduce the possibility for waste and reduce carbon footprints. Dr. Ravilla stated that
Mr. Ian Wishart provided an additional exemplar institution – The Regional Eye Centre in the Solomon Islands – as an example of how effective and efficient health centres can be when they adopt a sustainable approach to eye care and are willing to work together and do things differently in our rapidly changing climate.
In summing up the event and calling for climate-focused action, Ambassador Webson emphasized that, “It is important that we take the knowledge and collaboration from today’s meeting and turn it into action. Let’s commit today to joining together for a more sustainable healthcare sector…Everyone must play their part.” The time is now to mobilize and support eye health service providers in responding to environmental sustainability and climate change.