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WHO, WIPO, WTO Symposium Highlights Interrelatedness of Climate Change and Human Health

November 23, 2023

On 14 November, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO), WIPO and the World Trade Organization (WTO) held the 10th Joint Technical Symposium titled “Facing the Future: Human Health and Climate Change”. The event underscored the importance of exploring the intersections between public health, trade, and intellectual property (IP) to leverage existing tools, and develop new technologies, to address the effects of climate change on human health, especially among the world’s most marginalized populations.

(Image: Emmanuel Berrod)

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and WIPO Director General Daren Tang opened the Symposium. They highlighted current devastating impacts of climate change on human health and the need to apply lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic response for urgent cross-sectoral efforts to protect people from the escalating climate threats.

“It is urgent that we advocate with our Member States to honor and accelerate their commitments to reduce emissions and transition to clean energy”, said WHO Director-General Ghebreyesus. “In the same way that we have been fighting for global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, we need to ensure that intellectual property and trade rules are not a barrier to accessing greener and healthier technologies. WHO will continue working closely in these fields with WIPO, WTO, the UNFCCC, other stakeholders – and most importantly our Member States – to guide innovation and trade in the service of a more sustainable and healthier future for all.”

WTO Director-General Okonjo-Iweala noted that “trade is a vital tool for disseminating green technology and driving down the cost of decarbonization.” She said that “to solve problems in public health and the climate, breakthrough technologies must be incentivized, invented, developed, and widely diffused. Innovation and access must go together.” She emphasized that “many developing country governments have not yet put in place the legal mechanisms or tools that allow use of existing or future flexibilities. With the impact of climate change on health becoming more evident, this is the time to get ready.” She also recalled that “the pandemic response offers further lessons to guide our efforts to build climate-resilient health systems and support equitable access to medical technologies needed for climate adaptation.”

WIPO Director General Daren Tang stated that WIPO has been “working to make IP part of our collective journey towards building a better future for all, as we need IP to help unleash the innovation and creative potential of our peoples in the service of realizing the SDGs”.  He went on to explain that there is a “gap between those who have and want to offer these technologies, and those who need them. That’s why we created WIPO GREEN—a free, online platform matching providers and seekers of green tech around the world.” Further, Director General Tang noted that: “WIPO will continue to help build innovation and tech transfer capabilities in Member States so that tech transfer can lead to actual deployment on the ground, as well as be a constructive voice in the important discussions currently underway across the international community on TRIPS flexibilities and other IP issues.” He also stressed the importance of tools like the Trilateral Technical Assistance Platform, which will now be extended beyond COVID-19.

The keynote address was delivered by Ambrosio Yobánolo del Real, Vice-Chair of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Technology Executive Committee. He reviewed current and future adverse impacts of climate change on human health, including the prevalence of climate-sensitive diseases, risks of involuntary displacement and climate-driven violent conflicts. He noted that evidence-based actions proposed at the international level will have concurrent effects of mitigating the climate crisis while improving all dimensions of individual health and well-being.

The opening remarks and keynote address were followed by three panel discussions. The first panel – moderated by Ms. Yukiko Nakatani, WHO Assistant Director General on Access to Medicines and Health Products – discussed practical experiences of health care needs in different regions arising from the climate crisis, featuring speakers from WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health; Pakistan’s Ministry for Climate Change & Environmental Coordination, Law & Justice & Water Resources; Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF); Confederation of Indigenous Women from Bolivia (CNAMIB); and Climate Action Network Latin America (CAN-LA).

The second panel – moderated by Mr. Edward Kwakwa, Assistant Director General, Global Challenges and Partnerships Sector at WIPO – discussed how IP can serve as an enabler of innovative technologies that address climate change and promote human health, as well as approaches to ensure that IP works as an instrument to ensure global equitable access to such technologies. Speakers represented the Department of Commercial Law at the University of Cape Town (UCT); Brazil’s Permanent Mission to the WTO and other Economic Organizations in Geneva; Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiatives (DNDi); and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).

The third panel – moderated by Mr. Antony Taubman, Director, Intellectual Property, Procurement and Competition Division, WTO – discussed how trade policies can be deployed to mitigate climate change-related health risks, including ensuring food safety and food security. The discussion featured speakers from Health Canada; the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); Novartis; and the Clean Energy Innovations Partnerships.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Clive Ondari, Director of Health Products and Standards, Access to Medicines and Health Products Division, WHO, summarized the discussions and noted that continued collaboration with Member States, as well as engagement of the private sector, civil society, and indigenous communities, will be essential to address the health challenges resulting from climate change.

The video recording of the Symposium, presentations and bios of speakers and moderators are available on the event page.