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Climate change, health & wellbeing

From rising temperatures to increased flooding, ESR is working to understand and respond to the consequences of climate change, to safeguard Aotearoa now and for future generations.

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About

ESR is studying climate change impacts, where they will be most felt, who will be most vulnerable, and what adaptations Aotearoa will need.

Our expertise includes drinking water safety, water security, infectious disease, vector-borne disease, radiation and social systems. 

We provide expert scientific advice to inform climate change planning, adaptation and mitigation initiatives. We look at how systems behave over time, to interpret how the interactions between environment, health, culture and society affect the wellbeing of individuals, communities and the country.

This transdisciplinary approach is essential to understanding  the direct and less obvious impacts of climate change. Our work addresses the needs of policy makers, funders, and decision makers, equipping them with crucial information to steer climate change responses and safeguard the welfare of our society.

Health systems & adaptation

Health systems & adaptation

The effects of climate change will be wide ranging and are expected to have impacts directly and indirectly on human health and the health system. In order to maintain and improve health now and for future generations, countries need to build resilient health systems to protect people, particularly the most vulnerable, from the health risks related to natural hazards, disaster events and climate change. To help anticipate future health risks, many countries have prepared specific health national adaptation plans (HNAPs) as a strategy to help prepare and manage the health impacts associated with a changing global climate.

In 2019, the Ministry of Health commissioned ESR to undertake a review of considerations that need to be made when developing a health national adaptation plan (HNAP) for New Zealand. It provided information on key differences between national adaptation plans (NAPs) and HNAPs, and fed into a 2020 report looking at stakeholder views on the development, effectiveness and utility of a health adaptation plan.

ESR is also involved in an HRC funded project looking at the impact of rising temperatures on child health. An estimated 37% of recent heat-related deaths globally have been attributed to human-induced climate change, and overseas evidence suggests that heat-related deaths and illness in New Zealand children is likely to be substantial and inequitably distributed. One of the project outcomes will be to suggest policy measures to reduce the health impacts of rising temperatures on vulnerable sub-populations.

ESR monitors disease and bacteria that are sensitive to a changing climate, including Zika virus, malaria and vibrio.

Environmental health risks

Environmental health risks

Climate change is likely to worsen environmental health risks that already exist, including exposure to air irritants and pollutants, extreme weather events, exposure (or lack of) UV solar radiation, potential establishment of vector-borne diseases and illnesses related to exposure to toxins, and water-borne and infectious diseases. Future sea level rises will make some of these issues worse, and new risks are likely to occur under high heat-trapping scenarios. There are also a number of indirect impacts on health such as increased water and food insecurity and population migration. 

To help anticipate and plan for future environmental health risks in New Zealand over the next 50 – 100 years, we need to understand what these impacts are, where they might be most felt and who will be most vulnerable. This can act as a basis for deciding on the next steps needed for putting mitigation and adaptation strategies in place.

Sustainability & circular economy

Sustainability & Circular Economy

Sustainability is at the heart of a fair and resilient planet. It includes climate change mitigation and adaptation but also recognises other challenges around sustainable development.

For example, a warming Earth makes it harder to grow enough food, but clearing forests to grow that food contributes to climate change. The UN defines “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” which is about more than just environmental concerns. It also looks at economic prosperity, water and food access, education, and other needs that contribute to people’s quality of life.

ESR works on projects that seek to understand sustainability issues in the health and environment sector and explore solutions. From Health Sector Waste Minimisation Towards a Circular Economy is an ESR report looking at the impact of healthcare waste on CO2 emissions, and describing the knowledge gaps and steps needed to reduce waste production, landfill use and unnecessary procurement costs in New Zealand’s healthcare sector.

ESR’s Biowaste team looks for innovative, sustainable solutions to minimise, convert, and re-use biowaste (any solid or liquid organic, biodegradable waste). For example, adding treated biowaste to soil can increase nutrient levels and minimise the need for inorganic fertilisers. The team has also shown the potential to irrigate native bush with wastewater, and to use insects to recycle biowaste and recover resources that can be used for other industries. We’re also looking at composting toilets, greywater recycling and sustainable wastewater treatment. 

Specialist services

Specialist services

We have capability and expertise in the multi-faceted impacts of climate change, including where they may be most felt and the adaptation strategies needed. This is informed by our cross-disciplinary knowledge in drinking water safety, water security, infectious disease, vector-borne disease, radiation and social systems. It also draws upon more than two decades’ work with Pacific Island nations to support the development of sustainable and resilient health systems.

ESR has been working with Pacific Island nations for over twenty years, assisting the region with scientific expertise, information and tools to strengthen policy, programmes and practice to support healthy, safe and resilient communities.

We work in partnership with regional organisations such as The Pacific Community (SPC), the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, Pacific governments, Civil Society Organisations, not-for-profit organisations, and New Zealand CRIs and universities.

In order to maintain and improve health and wellbeing now and for future generations, countries need to build resilient health systems to protect people, particularly the most vulnerable, from the health risks related to natural hazards, disaster events and climate change.

Experts in the area

Experts in Climate change, health & wellbeing

Annette Bolton
Annette Bolton

Senior Scientist

Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson

Senior Scientist