Edit Magazine

Planetary Health

The planetary health concept describes how humanity's wellbeing is intrinsically linked with that of the global ecosystem, and how threats to the ecosystem also threaten our very existence.

Before the storm. Gloomy skies over open fields show the dangerous power of nature.
Gloomy skies before a storm. Credit: kertlis/Getty Images

Unseasonable rain floods the fields. The harvest fails. People move to the city in search of food and work. Untamed urbanisation. More cars, more factories, more pollution. The air is choked, the soil is poisoned. People’s health suffers and the climate changes.

This inexorable, cyclical bond between humanity and the environment is intuitively understood. For communities to be healthy, their patch of earth must thrive too.

Two years ago, the esteemed medical journal The Lancet gave this relationship a name: planetary health. It describes how our wellbeing is dependent on the systems that underpin our lives – not just environmental but legal, social, and economic too.

Pinning down this concept, says the University’s Professor Liz Grant, gives everyone a “space to think about the values behind how we live and act”.

“We are part of a global ecosystem,” she adds, “and when this ecosystem is threatened, then our very existence is threatened.”

Professor Grant has witnessed this threat first-hand. As the Director of the University’s Global Health Academy, Professor Grant has supported access to health systems in sub-Saharan Africa for 20 years.

“There are areas where the poverty levels and health outcomes are getting worse because of climate change,” she says. “I am seeing a lot of people who are living with non-communicable diseases – cancers, heart disease - that we once thought didn’t happen in low-income countries. These have been shaped by significant levels of pollution in soil and water. People are dying from illnesses that have emerged because Planetary Health has not been considered.”

The University and its alumni are playing their part in changing this.


Planetary Health Alliance

On 29 May 2018, Edinburgh will host the second annual meeting of the Planetary Health Alliance, a consortium of universities, NGOs and other partners. Chaired by Professor Grant, the three-day event will bring together researchers, policy makers, planners and communities from around the world.

The University has five Global Academies – Global Health, Global Environment, Global Agriculture and Food Security, Global Justice, and Global Development – that bring together an international community of researchers, students and alumni to develop holistic solutions for some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Planetary health runs like a thread through each.

Alumni are being asked to help in another way. To promote the concept of planetary health and to generate knowledge and action, there is a list of simple, achievable pledges that individuals or Alumni clubs can sign up to online.

Some have already begun.


A community of cyclists

Gabriel Gonzalez Mandiola from the University of Edinburgh Alumni Chile’s cycling club.
Gabriel Gonzalez Mandiola from the University of Edinburgh Alumni Chile’s cycling club.

On Sunday 6 May 2018, a massed peloton of bikes will ascend San Cristobal Hill in Santiago, Chile. They will come to rest under a 22-metre high statue of the Virgin Mary. At 850 metres above sea level, it is the second highest peak in the city.

This will be the inaugural ride of the University of Edinburgh Alumni Chile’s cycling club, which has been created with planetary health in mind.

Formed by Gabriel Gonzalez Mandiola, MSc Advanced Sustainable Design 2008, he says its ethos is to “motivate sustainable transportation, mobility and healthy gatherings” and is “open to the alumni community living in Chile and their families”.


Reducing waste

Laura Getts from the Alumni Club in Colorado.
Laura Getts from the Alumni Club in Colorado.

The Alumni Club in Colorado has made a similar planetary health pledge.

Its members have dedicated themselves to cycling or walking instead of driving, sourcing local food, ditching disposable cups, air drying their clothes, and turning down the thermostat.

They plan to use their social media channels to spread the word, hold events in local restaurants, and organise a cycle tour.

In making this pledge, organiser Laura Getts, MA(Hons) International Relations 2010, points out that Colorado is two degrees warmer than it was 30 years ago.

For a state that relies upon regular snowfall to support many livelihoods, this is a major threat.


Circular fashion

Lingyin Fan from the Edinburgh Alumni Club of Shanghai.
Lingyin Fan from the Edinburgh Alumni Club of Shanghai, which is raising awareness of sustainable fashion.

Meanwhile, the University of Edinburgh Alumni Club of Shanghai is improving planetary health through the medium of fashion. It is an industry that fashion designer Stella McCartney describes as “the second most harmful on the planet”, after fossil fuels.

The over-consumption of clothes puts huge pressure on natural resources and accounts for vast swathes of landfill. Combined with the plastic used in packaging, much of which ends up in the ocean, fashion is at the front line of planetary health.

Shanghai alumni, led by Club representative Lingyin Fan, MSc Ecological Economics 2015, have pledged to collaborate with social enterprises to host workshops and raise awareness around sustainable fashion. They will encourage people to buy less and buy smarter, reuse and recycle clothes, and organise clothes swap events and social media groups for members.


Open to one and all

Alumni can do their part, no matter where they are in the world.

“Every movement starts with an individual; every action has a consequence,” says Professor Grant. “Pledges are an overt recognition of engagement and empowerment. The global challenges we face in the 21st century cannot be tackled by governments and big business alone. Each of us, our children, and our friends must face these challenges. And each of us can help solve them.”


Pledge your support

Planetary health isn't just about large-scale activities. It is also about personal commitments. We invite you, our alumni, to join our drive to improve planetary health by making a pledge of your own.

To make things a bit more interesting we have organised pledges by decade of graduation. Ensure your decade is well represented in the Edinburgh Alumni Planetary Health Commitment league by signing up to take action now.


Sign up to make your pledge.


Related links

The 2018 Planetary Health Alliance annual meeting

29-31 May, 2018

McEwan Hall


For more information about the meeting of the Planetary Health Alliance hosted by the University in May 2018, please visit:

Further information and event registration.