COP26 legacy lecture series: “giant leap” required on climate action

Experts speaking at a series of free evening webinars on climate change and health by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh are expected to say that while progress was made at COP26, a “giant leap” is required to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In the first webinar, which will take place on Thursday 9 December, David Reay, Professor of Carbon Management and Education at the University of Edinburgh will assess how successful COP26 was on agreeing the way ahead for cutting carbon emissions. He will also discuss multinational commitments on tackling key issues such as deforestation and methane gas emissions, which are harmful to planetary and human health.

In advance of the 9 December webinar, Professor Reay said:

Reflecting on the two weeks of intense climate negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow it's clear that, while real progress was made, it was nowhere near enough.

There were notable successes in terms of agreement on the 'rule book' that underpins the Paris Agreement, and strong multinational commitments on tackling key issues such as deforestation and methane emissions.

Ultimately though, COP26 failed to deliver the national commitments to cut emissions that would together limit warming globally to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Glasgow was a step in the right direction when it is a giant leap that is required.

Howard Frumkin, Professor Emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington, will outline the many pathways through which climate change threatens every aspect of public health - including infectious diseases, injuries, chronic diseases, mental health, and societal stability.  He will emphasise the complexity of the challenge, as well as the inequitable patterns of climate change on public health; and the urgency of addressing the health impacts of climate change.

Professor Frumkin said:

Climate change poses far-reaching threats to health and wellbeing - an increasingly important reality for health professionals. But tackling the climate challenge offers equally far-reaching opportunities to improve people’s lives. Health professionals, as trusted voices and with the mission of reducing human suffering, have a key role to play in climate action.

Andy Haines, Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, will discuss the health benefits of climate action, with a specific focus on actions that can reduce carbon emissions and improve health such as reducing air pollution by phasing out fossil fuels; increasing our consumption of environmentally friendly food; promoting physical activity through 'active travel' and by retrofitting houses to improve energy efficiency.

Professor Haines said:

Action to cut emissions that are causing climate change could benefit health in the near term, for example through reduced air pollution, healthy dietary choices, warmer and more energy efficient homes and increased physical activity from walking and cycling. These benefits will occur in the near term and are additional to the benefits of reducing the risks of climate change.

Communicating the health benefits of climate action can help to increase public support for the rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement.

The 9 December webinar, which will be Chaired by Elizabeth Bradley, President of Vassar College in New York and Professor of Science, Technology, and Society will also cover the changes needed to tackle the climate crisis; an overview of climate change impact upon health; direct impacts of climate change on ecosystems and socio-economic systems and co-benefits of a net zero economy.

Elizabeth Bradley said:

I am delighted to be in conversation with some of the most provocative and innovative thinkers across the landscape of climate change and global health. Their work makes clear that we need an ecological approach to addressing the health effects of climate change; an approach that involves not just climate experts but also health professionals.

In addition, we need a truly multidisciplinary approach. This means that the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the arts all have a role to play in devising strategies that secure our collective future while mitigating unintended, unnecessary harms.

Professor Andrew Elder, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, added:

I would encourage anyone with an interest in climate change and its impact on health to virtually attend this free lecture series. During the series, we will hear from leading experts on health systems and climate change, strategies for mitigation of climate change, plus much more.

The College is particularly eager to highlight the role that healthcare systems can play in reducing carbon emissions. For example, 5% of carbon emissions in Europe come from healthcare systems but there are a range of actions that could be taken forward, such as reducing waste, avoiding unnecessary prescribing, the sustainable recycling of PPE and the continued promotion of video technology where appropriate.

The 9 December webinar is co-organised by Professor Liz Grant, Assistant Principal (Global Health) and Director of the Global Health Academy at the University of Edinburgh. She said:

We have much of the science to tackle the climate crisis, but we need action. The health community have a powerful voice, and working together across the globe, they can help bring about the leap necessary to limit global warming. This is our COP26 legacy; to make good on the promises that are needed to change the future.


1. More about the free COP26 Legacy Series, including a programme and booking link, can be found here:  

2. RCPE established an Advisory Forum on the Environment which is examining what more it can do to reduce its carbon footprint, in addition to actions already taken including offering sustainable catering solutions and providing recyclable drinking cups across the College buildings. The College also contributed to and supported a recent statement on the climate emergency by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties in Scotland, of which it is an active member:

3. The RCPE response to COP26 can be read here: