Health equity at heart of the sustainable development agenda

We live in a fast moving world where productivity and efficiency are of great importance. While we reap many benefits from technical achievements and economic growth, we have started to face the limits of resources and big threats to our environment and our health. Our way of living, characterized by ‘take-make-consume-dispose’ models are having adverse impacts on our eco-system, our health and our well-being.

By Ingrid Stegeman & Elisa Schabu

One example:  modern food production processes significantly impact on the environment through, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, soil depletion and pesticides.  These processes are also resulting in an overconsumption of products that are high in fat and sugar which are contributing to overweight and obesity in our societies, and to high levels of waste.rush hour traffic jam

Another example: according to the European Environment Agency, 75% of Europeans currently live in urban areas, and this figure will rise to 80% by 2020. This is leading to rising levels of air pollution (linked to cancer, asthma, stroke, heart disease and even diabetes, obesity, and dementia[1]), less exposure to green space, and a higher percentage of people that live alone.

There is increasing awareness of the adverse environmental and health impacts of our way of living, and a growing desire and drive amongst decision makers and citizens for a more sustainable future.  This is reflected by the Paris Agreement, as well as the Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals.  There are also many initiatives to tackle the problem, like efforts to find new sources of energy, the introduction of car-free days in European cities, the promotion of active travel through bike-sharing facilities, green walls on buildings, or urban gardening initiatives. Often, such initiatives are not large enough in scale to make a real impact. In addition, they are not part of a comprehensive and integrated policy approach but led and implemented by a single sector (e.g. environment, health, transport) without the input of other sectors to maximize impact. The true impact of such initiatives is in fact largely unknown, as many are not evaluated. Even less is known about the impact on the people who would benefit most from change, namely those in our society who are already economically and socially vulnerable. Too often, efforts to improve the environment and health benefit the better-off, rather than people already facing disadvantage, and thereby contribute to increasing rather than narrowing the health inequality gap.

The European Environmental Agency (EEA) has indicated that the current pace of change to reduce environmental stressors will not be sufficient to protect our natural environment. And unless comprehensive action is taken, environmental damage and climate change will exacerbate the challenges that Europe faces in sustaining health care systems and reducing health inequalities.

As a response to the challenges: the INHERIT project

INHERIT-Logo-&-StraplineINHERIT is a project that stands for “Inter-sectoral Health and Environment Research for Innovation.” It was initiated by EuroHealthNet in 2015 in response to a Horizon 2020 Call in the area of ‘health, demographic change and well-being’. The proposal was one of three of the many proposals submitted under this call that was accepted for funding, and launched in January 2016.  It involves 18 partners from different sectors (health, environment, sustainable development, industry) from across the EU and will be implemented over the course of 4 years.

The overall aim of INHERIT is to define effective inter-sector policies, interventions and innovations that promote the health and well-being of European citizens across the social gradient while also addressing key environmental stressors and related inequalities. INHERIT partners will seek policies, interventions and innovations in the areas of living, moving and consuming, that address key environmental stressors and encourage or enable people to lead healthier lives. A focus will be on identifying good practice initiatives which can achieve a ‘triple win’: improve health, environmental sustainability and contribute to health equity.

The project is unique in a number of respects. It will:

  • expand existing conceptions of environmental public health by framing the relationship between the environment, health and health equity in a more holistic way, with reference  to the much wider set of issues which bear upon it;
  • strengthen the emphasis on lifestyles and behaviours in environmental health issues and apply knowledge from the health promotion sector on how to achieve behaviour change, encouraging a stronger ‘bottom up’ momentum for change;
  • promote and facilitate more comprehensive policy-making approaches and inter-sectoral actions and draw learning from these;
  • put health equity at  its heart, by taking a systematic approach to integrate a health equity dimension in all work-strands;
  • contribute to strengthening the evidence base in areas where it is currently weak.

From new policy frameworks to public campaigns, from targeted behavior change interventions to innovative new concepts and business models, the path to more environmentally sustainable, healthier and more equitable societies can come from many directions.

Help us get started by sharing your ideas or examples to achieve positive change!

Visit the INHERIT website to learn more and to contribute!


Ingrid Stegeman
Program Manager at EuroHealthNet | + posts

Ingrid Stegeman is Programme Manager with almost 20 years of experience in the field of EU health and social policies, and in managing EU co-funded projects. She works across EuroHealthNet’s Policy, Practice and Research Platforms, and is responsible for overseeing and ensuring the quality of EuroHealthNet’s wide-ranging activities to reduce health inequalities through underlying determinants of health. She is currently managing EuroHealthNet’s Schools4Health project and our contributions to the FEAST research consortium, that focuses on transforming food systems, as policy lead.

Elise Schabu
+ posts

Elise is completing a Master's in European Public Health at Maastricht University. As a part of her Master’s programme, Elise is doing a placement at EuroHealthNet where she is writing her thesis related to the INHERIT project. She holds a Master’s degree in Biology from the University of Vienna. She has previously worked as a language assistant and as a secondary school teacher.

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