Young people: a vital investment in the environment and health process

WHO/Andreas Alfredsson

The CEHAPE awards were meant to share examples of good practice and political commitment to promote environment and health initiatives in the WHO European Region

The Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health has provided an excellent opportunity for participants to share examples of good practice and political commitment to promote environment and health initiatives in the WHO European Region. Capturing the commitment of different partners – the private and public sectors from local to national and international levels – as well as actively engaging civil society and the media are essential elements for success.

Focus on day two of the Conference was also on the importance of improving the capacity of countries to leverage funds to address climate change targets and related health concerns.

Delegates agreed that ensuring the full participation of young people in policy development adds a dimension of sustainability and legitimacy to the environment and health process.

Award-winning projects

The second day of the Conference in Parma, Italy, began with an award ceremony recognizing the essential work of civil society, in partnership with government, in advocating and implementing environmental measures to protect and improve children’s health. Over 100 entries were received from 31 countries in the European Region and the organizers presented awards for projects in eight categories: water and sanitation, accident prevention, air quality, chemicals, mobility, climate protection, youth participation and schools.

During a lively panel discussion, youth and civil society representatives asked panelists to explain more about their countries’ successful initiatives. Following an explanation of Austria’s mobility policies, making public transport free for young people and promoting environmentally-friendly vehicles and fuel, Ms Diba Hadziahmetovic, the youth delegate from Bosnia and Herzegovina was invited to Austria to learn more about how young people can advocate for free public transport.

A proactive approach by young people was also recommended by Mr Philippe Henry, the Walloon Minister for the Environment, Belgium, in a discussion on indoor air quality in schools. Explaining the “refreshingly cool” initiative, balancing the need for insulation and ventilation in all buildings including classrooms, the Minister commented: “It’s a question of education for children, and then they will be more aware of the issue later in life.”

What makes initiatives succeed?

The elements of successful national policy implementation identified by delegates include strong political will, a clear strategy, human and financial resources, a coordinator and national taskforce that set clear priorities and drive implementation, a good mix of regulations and voluntary incentives, participation from all stakeholders and youth partnership.

Many participants spoke of the need to “speak the language” of other ministries, and Ms Ewa Kopacz, Minister of Health, Poland, provided clear examples of inter-ministry cooperation: “When the Minister of Transport is advocating more bike paths, I support him by providing evidence on how much it costs to treat children with road traffic injuries.” She continued: “…when the Minister of Agriculture is seeking support for providing milk and fruit to children in school, I explain how expensive it is to treat overweight and obesity in older youth. Now I need a formal structure for this cooperation.”

The need to focus policies on children was emphasized by many delegates. Professor George Morris, Consultant in Ecological Public Health with the National Health Service of Scotland, United Kingdom, underlined the “sensitivity”, both positive and negative, that children have to their environment, and added: “The environment we create for children can set the pattern for their health for life.”

How do we generate resources?

Many delegates underlined the difficulties in harnessing new resources in today’s economic climate. Sessions in the afternoon provided innovative solutions for providing both financial and human resources to promote health and environment issues. Dr Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, Executive Director of the European Food Safety Authority, explained how her organization engages a network of over 350 scientific organizations across Europe who lend their experts to undertake the Authority’s work.

Ms Kori Udovicki, Regional Director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, spoke of harnessing funds to meet climate change targets and related health returns, which will increasingly come from non-traditional sources. She spoke of the need to promote green investment, particularly in the private sector, and how the international community should support countries in removing barriers to accessing funding and build country capacity to leverage funds themselves.

Why engage children and young people?

Ms Marika Tsereteli, youth representative for the Children’s Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe (CEHAPE), and a sixth-year student of the Tbilisi State Medical University and Member of the Institute of Public Health of Georgia, stated the case for youth participation clearly: “Involving young people in environment and health issues is difficult due to a lack of funding. But helping us to get involved and get experience in this area is the best investment you can make in the future.”

WHY media awards

The final session on the second day of the Conference acknowledged the contribution of the media to the environment and health process. Dr Deborah Cohen, Senior Health Editor of the British Medical Journal, commented: “Reporting on health and science isn’t easy but plays a vital role in democracy and getting messages out to the public.” Five young journalists and members of the World Health Youth (WHY) Communication Network from across the European Region were presented with awards for their articles on environment and health themes.

Receiving her award, the winner of the first prize, Ms Mette Sikjaer of Denmark said: “I would like to commend WHO for organizing this network of young journalists. It is very important to have journalists on your side, and I hope that we will be used as stakeholders and partners on environment and health issues.”

Also on the agenda

On the final day of the Conference, discussions will focus on dealing with climate change and the future of the environment and health process in Europe. The Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health will conclude with the signing of the Conference Declaration.