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Walking the Talk
Biogen Puts $250M Toward Protecting the Climate, Human Health, Social Justice

With its commitment to eliminate fossil fuel use by 2040, Biogen aims to accelerate progress on improving air quality and addressing the harm being done to vulnerable communities around the world.

The pace of progress moves fast, especially when it comes to sustainability. For corporate commitments around climate, what was groundbreaking just a few years ago can be sorely lacking today — as the consensus need for stronger, bolder action grows.

In 2014, Biogen — a multinational biotechnology and health company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts — was praised for its then-industry-leading climate-neutrality pledge. Just six years later, the company has gone even further — committing to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels by 2040; to address climate change, but also something that is often given less attention when it comes to sustainability — human health.

“You can’t believe in human health without thinking about our operational impact and our impact on the environment,” said Johanna Jobin, Global Head of Corporate Reputation and Responsibility Strategy at Biogen. “Not all climate actions we take have a benefit on human health.”

But science, increasingly, shows that reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels could benefit both the planet and our health in dramatic ways.

“If the world eliminated fossil fuel emissions, global expected life expectancy could increase by 1.1 years,” Jobin added.

Biogen discussed its $250 million, 20-year commitment and its efforts to link climate, equity and health at a virtual event on September 30 entitled “Climate, health and social justice: the links, impacts and potential solutions” — the event was hosted by Sustainable Brands™ and featured participants from the academic, non-profit and business communities.

“Climate change is a huge health issue, and an enormous opportunity to improve health, particularly for people who are more vulnerable,” Aaron Bernstein — Director of The Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health — said during the event.

The figures are staggering. Globally, about nine million deaths a year can be directly attributed to air pollution, the vast majority of which comes from the burning of fossil fuels in industry, automobiles or for power generation. In the United States, researchers from the University of Minnesota estimate that 100,000 deaths a year are due to air pollution — half of which can be linked to fossil fuels. Death is just one part of the health picture; as chronic ailments such as asthma, and even developmental disorders, can be linked to air pollution.

“Children who are exposed to fossil fuels have a lifetime of harm,” Bernstein said. “Pollution from fossil fuels can damage children, including their minds.”

There’s an obvious social justice component, as well. The reality is that not all US citizens are impacted by air and water pollution from fossil fuel production and use in the same ways. Evidence shows that, in the US, low-income communities and people of color often live closer to highways, power plants, or industry — and their health suffers. This is no accident.

“We have historical racist practices in housing and loans,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, Director of the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center at the Atlantic Council. “Industrial sites that pollute are often located next to low-income neighborhoods.”

This connects to another, larger point: While individual action is important; quite often climate, health and pollution are systemic problems that require structural change.

“Let’s recognize the severity of the climate and health challenge, and recognize it as a structural problem,” said Noelle Eckley Selin, Associate Professor of Technology and Policy at MIT. “Pushing for structural change is one of the most important things for addressing the magnitude of this problem.”

Taking a health-centric approach has another benefit, too, Bernstein argues: It allows for better communication and engagement with the public.

“In the US, we have research that shows that climate is politicized; but that in order to depoliticize it has to be made personal,” he said. “Talking about how fossil fuels impact health does that, and the best messengers for that are healthcare providers.”

The hope is that Biogen’s move — and a growing community of business sustainability leaders linking a healthy climate to human health — can accelerate progress on reducing global fossil fuel use, and addressing the harm already done to communities across the world.

In a year in which rampant, climate-fueled wildfires have charred millions of hectares across the western US, Australia and the Amazon, impacting the health of millions; it is clear that we need to rapidly and decisively shift away from fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to save our planet — and ourselves. Here’s to more businesses adding fuel to that fire.