#1 Building a sustainable world by considering planetary and human health

Chiho Watanabe
Professor and Dean, Interfaculty Initiative in Planetary Health, School of Tropical Medicine and Global Health, Nagasaki University
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In 2015, a new concept called “planetary health” was announced, and it went on to spread throughout the world. In 2020, Nagasaki University also declared its intent to become a “university that contributes to planetary health,” and has taken the initiative in planetary health activities in Japan. Just what exactly is this concept of planetary health that is attracting so much attention? We interviewed Professor Chiho Watanabe, Dean, Interfaculty Initiative in Planetary Health.

A New Concept for the Health of People and the Earth

What is the concept of Planetary Health?

Planetary Health grew out of the health field. Health concepts have been greatly influenced by human economic development and social life. In the 1990s, we had the concept of “global health,” which addresses extranational health issues, and in the 2000s we saw another transition to the idea of “one health,” which emphasizes the mutual impacts among people, animals, and the environment.

Then, in 2015, the globally influential medical journal “The Lancet” introduced “planetary health,” which regards human and societal health as interrelated with the planet’s health. Possibly underpinning this development was the feeling that we needed a new concept to deal with issues that couldn’t be addressed within existing frameworks.

We view planetary health, the aim of which is the sustainable coexistence of humans and the earth, as a new platform for solving health issues and global challenges by approaching them from the standpoint of the relationship between global environmental changes and human health.

More Broadly and More Systematically

Perhaps many people think of the medical and healthcare fields when they hear the word “health. ”How should we think about such familiar health issues, in connection with the global environment?

When we hear words like “health” and “environmental change,” we tend to think only on a large scale. But people are also a part of the earth, and everything around us is also connected to the earth.

For example, driving a car affects global warming because cars emit CO2. Some foods also come from countries that are far away from Japan, so to a certain extent, our daily meals place a burden on the land and water resources of other countries. It‘s good to start by being aware of what’s happening “before” and “after” such things and events in our daily lives.

Global health also considers the relationship between the environment and health, but in contrast, planetary health tackles it more broadly and more systematically. Planetary health considers it important to take ownership of various global issues as our own problems in order to protect human society.

The Difference between Planetary Health and SDGs

What is the difference between planetary health and SDGs?

Since SDGs were adopted in 2015, we’ve seen active efforts made around the world toward realizing the 17 goals. The national and local governments, as well as companies, schools, and other organizations in Japan are also working on them. At the same time, little attention has been paid to the fact that SDG activities have the potential to cause conflicts.

Clearing forests to solve food shortages could solve the problem of hunger, but it could also exert negative impacts on the ecosystem.

…In other words, the original intent of the SDGs to “think about the balance among the 17 goals” has somehow led to an increasing number of cases where only some of the goals are selected for action. Some researchers have also warned that this could lead to achieving the rest of them being impossible even if some of the SDGs are reached by 2030.

Planetary health and the SDGs each have the same essential aim of realizing sustainable world with an eye on the next generation and the future. However, planetary health takes a long-term perspective, clarifies the relationship between nature and humankind, and finds a way forward that avoids the harmful effects brought about by conflicts. We believe that this concept goes a step beyond the SDGs.

Chiho Watanabe
Professor and Dean, Interfaculty Initiative in Planetary Health, School of Tropical Medicine and Global Health, Nagasaki University
Chiho Watanabe earned credits at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Medicine in 1989.He served as Professor of Human Ecology, University of Tokyo Graduate School of Medicine from 2005 to 2017, as President, National Institute for Environmental Studies from 2017 to 2021, and assumed his current position in 2021. He is Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo and a Doctor of Health Science.His other positions include or have included President, Japanese Society of Health and Human Ecology (2017-2023); Chairman, Society of Environmental Science, Japan (2021-2023); Associate Member, Section II, Science Council of Japan; former Third Vice President, Society for Human Ecology; and former Chair, Human Ecology Section, Ecological Society of America.