The path to planetary health

For centuries it’s been recognised that there’s a direct link between the health of our planet and our own wellbeing. Numerous ancient civilisations celebrated and cherished that inter-dependence. Today, the relationship is under extreme duress. However, the University and its alumni are helping repair the bond.

Two hands holding a tree and a globe

It’s hard to deny that the most pressing issues currently facing humankind are the effects of man-made climate change and environmental degradation.

In response, the University of Edinburgh has joined the Planetary Health Alliance (PHA), a consortium of universities, NGOs and others. It is designed to support applied research that will help us understand and address the human health implications of man-made change affecting Earth’s natural systems.

Intensive care

In May, the University hosted the most recent PHA conference. To coincide with this, alumni were encouraged to give online pledges to make changes to their everyday life that would help support planetary health.

dave reay

Professor Dave Reay, Chair Carbon Management & Education, explains: “If we did the planet’s annual medical check-up today, we’d rush it straight to intensive care.

“The natural systems – oceans, land and air – that support life and human society face global challenges. From climate change, through deforestation and soil erosion, to pollution of rivers, oceans and the air we breathe, our planetary health is waning badly.

“The great Edinburgh philanthropist and geographer, Patrick Geddes, once said: ‘By leaves we live’ and this encapsulates Planetary Health perfectly. The health of our planet’s plants and animals, its soil, air and water all are fundamental to our own health.”


There is no doubt that human behaviour is the main root cause of environmental damage. The extraction and burning of fossil fuels and consumption of resources exacerbate climate change.

Our diets prompt land use change which, along with pesticides and habitat loss, reduce biodiversity.

Increasing urbanisation reduces green space, and transport systems impinge air quality.

Single use plastics and agricultural practice contaminate rivers, seas and oceans.

Dave emphasises that there is a lot happening to combat the threats, but it’s not happening fast enough. “We’re making progress on cutting emissions and making people and ecosystems more resilient. We’re improving access to education and best practices for land use, moving away from fossil fuel burning and seeing benefits for our own health as well as that of our climate, and we’re fighting plastic waste in our seas.”

Alumni community

The pledges made by alumni may seem small gestures when taken by themselves. However, Dave believes they are important because our alumni community are in every country in every walk of life, and we are all part of the solutions.

“One person or pledge alone cannot tackle climate change, but they can be the start of something huge. We are a community of over 200,000 people that can be a real force for change.”

an aerial view of a lake and grass

Sustainable solutions

He is equally convinced that the University’s world-leading expertise can help us understand and address the global challenges. “From climate, water, food and energy to education, justice, equality and human health, we have simply amazing colleagues.

“Most importantly, we’re working together. The challenges can’t be tackled by just one discipline or a magic bullet solution. They require integrated approaches that work with governments, civil society, business and communities to develop fair and sustainable solutions.”

He points to Edinburgh’s Global Academies initiative and the support of alumni to train and collaborate with new generations of interdisciplinary experts across the globe.

“While the challenges are immense so is the capacity of humankind to innovate and adapt.

“As a climate change scientist, I sometimes slip into frustration and pessimism. However, when I do I, look at the more than 400 students and alumni of our Masters in Carbon Management. They are doing amazing work to tackle climate change in more than 60 nations, and I see that together we can help steer a course to a safer future.”

Your pledges

You can become part of Edinburgh’s commitment to support planetary health by making one or more pledges on our dedicated website. As Dave says, no gesture is too small while the cumulative effect could be significant.

Planetary Health - Edinburgh Alumni

Related links

People need forests

Global challenges