When the Chilean government discovered that as much as 94 per cent of the fine particulate matter that contributed to smog was coming from firewood burning in buildings, it launched a programme to replace 200,000 firewood heaters with more energy-efficient ones.
It also started to subsidize insulation in low- and middle-income households to improve the housing conditions of 100,000 families— insulation, it found, reduced demand for heating by 30 per cent, which cut both emissions and bills.
The capital, Santiago, is investing millions in renewable energy projects and efficiency upgrades for their schools, hospitals, and other public buildings— specifically with the intention of reducing the smog that the city’s bowl-shaped geography traps and accumulates.
Buildings, particularly housing, as Santiago discovered, stand at the meeting point of health, air quality and climate change outcomes.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that buildings accounted for about one-third of black carbon emissions, over a third of total global final energy use, one-fifth of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 3.8 million people die prematurely from household air pollution, largely generated by inefficient burning of solid fuel for cooking.
In fact, close to half the deaths by pneumonia of children under five years old are caused by soot they breathe in from household air pollution.
“The scientific evidence on the many links between housing and health has grown substantially in recent decades. This evidence can be used to guide ‘primary preventive’ measures related to housing construction, renovation, use and maintenance, which can promote better overall health,” said WHO Director, Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, Dr Maria Neira.
Momentum for action has grown along with this evidence— this week, the WHO launches the first comprehensive set of global housing guidelines, which was requested by several Member States interested in better understanding the co-benefits of building better housing.
The WHO Housing and health guidelines, presented at the 15th International Conference on Urban Health in Kampala, Uganda, provide evidence-based recommendations on conditions and interventions that promote healthy housing as well as the knowledge needed to ensure that health and safety considerations form the foundations of housing regulations.
National, regional and local governments set overall standards and determine the legal context for housing construction and renovation— so the guidelines are aimed at policymakers and implementing actors responsible for housing-related policies and regulations, enforcement measures and initiating inter-sectoral collaboration intended to support healthy housing from a government perspective.
The sectorial approach taken by the experts both reflects and encourages a growing trend— one that incorporates health impacts and benefits in all policies.
“By focusing on a sector, as opposed to a specific health risk, intervention, activity or policy, the guidelines combine existing WHO guidance on housing issues with new evidence-based recommendations— so, that provides accessible guidance to decision-makers to make sure health considerations to inform housing, energy, community development, and urban development policies,” said WHO Coordinator, Air Pollution and Urban Health, Dr Nathalie Röbbel.
The guidelines come at a critical moment in history— as does the ability and willingness to think laterally within and across sectors.
“We cannot afford to get the infrastructure investments, which will be made over the next 15 years, wrong,” said head of UN Environment’s Cities Unit, Martina Otto.
“Areas key for addressing climate and air quality, as well as citizens’ well-being, are energy systems, mobility and buildings, all requiring long-term investments that lock us in for decades to come— we need to make sure that they lock us in on a sustainable urban development path,” she said.
Otto’s assessment is backed up by a detailed report from UN Environment on the importance of resource-efficient cities designed to promote sustainable lifestyles.
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shift the expected urbanization onto a more environmentally sustainable and socially just path,” according to The Weight of Cities.
Improved housing conditions can save lives, reduce disease, increase quality of life, reduce poverty, help mitigate climate change— all essential to putting the world on this path and contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
As the world becomes increasingly urban, how we build and use these spaces have significant impacts on both our individual and collective health and wellbeing.
Read the guidelines here.
Read coverage by UN News here: Better housing means better health and well-being, stress new WHO guidelines