The HOPE project is bringing together research and policy concerned with the health of people and the planet.
We have a particular focus on the health of the Earth’s ecosystems, an issue too often relegated to the margins of debates about environmental sustainability. In much environmental research and policy, the focus is on climate change and, in particular, the urgent need to keep the rise in global temperature below 2.0 degrees centigrade of pre-industrial levels.
This is clearly imperative – however, there are other pressing environmental priorities. In particular, the natural environment – oceans and forests, fields and woodlands and the plants and animals that live in them – is under intense pressure. Together, modern lifestyles and population growth are ‘wreaking havoc on our planet’s natural ecosystems’ . These fragile ecosystems sustain human life – and are predicted to collapse well before the 2.0 degree threshold is crossed .
The HOPE project therefore is focusing on ecosystem health – and will make clear the interdependencies between the health of populations and ecosystems.
We have three broad goals:
Our lifestyles – for example, what we eat and how physically active we are – affect our health, often for the worse. Lifestyles, and the economic systems in which they are embedded, are also important drivers of ecosystem damage. This damage is becoming increasingly hard to reverse.
While many key decisions are taken by national governments and global corporations, individual actions remain important.
Understanding the everyday behaviours that both promote health and protect the environment is an urgent priority. It will help to identify ‘win-win’ policies from which both people and the planet can benefit.
We are beginning this task by exploring patterns of walking and cycling – what is called ‘active travel’ - in the UK. Active travel is good for individual health – 30 minutes a day can halve the risk of developing heart disease, equivalent to the effect of not smoking.
Active travel is also good for the environment: unlike motorised travel, it is does produce greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. In the UK, walking and cycling have been in long-term decline. Nonetheless, they are still popular forms of travel for short journeys: 4 in 10 adults report that they ‘always or very often’ walk or cycle when taking journeys of less than 3 miles.
Active travel therefore offers real potential for integrated policies that combine environmental benefits with improvements in public health. We are therefore investigating who are the UK’s active travellers and what factors support their active travel choices.
One of the HOPE studentships is also exploring how better health and environmental sustainability can be brought together, by applying the concept of ‘virtuous cycles’ to public health and the natural environment.
 Dora, 1999
Today’s policies will have impacts that extend many years into the future. People living now may therefore get more of the benefits and bear less of the costs than those living in decades to come. This is particularly true of policies that affect the natural environment; in the drive for economic growth, tress get cut down, agricultural land is used for factories, greenhouse gases are released and river systems become polluted. These changes have long-term environmental impacts - on oceans and rivers, tropical forests and polar regions, fields and woodlands – and on the variety of plant and animal life that sustains the Earth’s ecosystems.
How the future is represented in policy evaluations is therefore very important. The standard approach is to give less weight to future benefits and costs than to current ones. This means that a policy that improves the wellbeing of current generations at the cost of future generations is more likely to implemented than one where benefits and costs are shared equally across the generations. A policy where the costs fall on today’s generations and the benefits are enjoyed by tomorrow’s generation would be very unlikely to be implemented.
This standard approach is assumed to be supported by the public. However, there is very little evidence on the value that people attach to policies that protect the health of future generations.
We are therefore asking people in the UK about health policies that will save lives in their own generation, their children’s generation and their grandchildren’s generations. We are offering three choices: to save more lives in their own generation, to save more lives in future generations or to save the same number of lives in each generation. Initial findings are striking - and are not at all in line with the standard assumptions used to evaluate health policies.
This ambitious goal will require broadening understanding of the determinants of people’s health to include the natural environment. It is widely accepted that our health is shaped by the environment – by our working and living conditions, the neighbourhoods we live in, our family and community networks, and our wider cultural environment. This 'social determinants of health' (SDH) framework underpins global, national and local strategies to improve population health and reduce health inequalities.
However, the major drivers of future population health go beyond these standard environmental determinants. Environmental change and ecosystem degradation are presenting us with a new scale of health challenges that need addressing in a coordinated way at a range of scales. Approaches to public health need to change radically and rapidly in response to these pressing challenges.
The research will include an analysis of existing and widely-used public health and ecosystem frameworks from around the world. We will explore the conceptual building blocks, causal structures and spatial/temporal scales of these frameworks. We will combine them to develop a new integrative framework, which is evidence-based and policy-relevant and can therefore be used to inform cross-sectoral policies linking public health and environmental sustainability.
The HOPE project is also supporting three doctoral studentships. These are focused on: