The Impact of Climate on Human Health

Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives™

When we think about protecting our health, we typically consider eating a balanced diet, staying active and having routine medical visits. But consider this: nearly 9 million lives are lost each year to air pollution-related health problems – making air pollution not only a significant environmental health threat,1 but a leading cause of death globally.2

People are increasingly aware of the impact that the environment and our surroundings have on our health. Studies continue to unearth more ways that environmental health and human health are inextricably linked. Indeed, without fossil fuel emissions, the global mean life expectancy would increase by 1.1 yearsand without all human-made air pollution it would increase 1.7 years practically the same effect as not smoking, which shortens the average lifespan by 1.8 years.

That is one reason why Biogen is bolstering its long-standing commitment to corporate responsibility by launching a new, science-based target to go fossil fuel free and address the deadly effects of air pollution to improve human health. In 2014 Biogen took a leadership position on climate change by achieving carbon neutrality. Since then, climate science has evolved and there has been mounting evidence that the burdens of air pollution are not shared equally. Biogen determined it was imperative to establish aggressive new science-based targets for climate and health.

With Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives, a groundbreaking $250 million, 20-year initiative, Biogen will move beyond carbon neutrality and work to eliminate the use of fossil fuels across its global operations. The company will also work with global leaders to advance the science of climate change and human health and work to mitigate climate and health impacts, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations – including children, the elderly, low-income families and individuals, minorities and people with chronic illnesses. With this announcement, Biogen becomes the first Fortune 500 company committing to become fossil fuel free across its operations by 2040.


Fossil Fuels and Health

As part of its long-term commitment, Biogen will be working with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) to pioneer new approaches to promote climate resilience in frontline healthcare centers, helping them address climate risk with the goal of promoting health for vulnerable communities. Biogen also aims to better understand the science of how fossil fuel emissions impact health, even brain health, by collaborating with leading scientists and local communities.

“Evidence suggests that air pollution can harm the brains of children and other vulnerable populations.  Children living in highly polluted areas are more likely to have behavioral problems and slower development, and air pollution can affect their cognition and may even set their brains up for neurodegenerative disease later in life,” explains Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director at the Harvard Chan C-CHANGE, which is supported through Biogen’s Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives initiative.

Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director at Harvard Chan Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment.

"We also see evidence that people who have neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s are far worse off when they breathe polluted air. This means we need to better understand if and how air pollution may be causing people to develop neurodegenerative diseases and develop strategies to protect people from the effects of air pollution on brain health.”


Disproportionate Impact on Already Vulnerable Populations

Many of those who suffer air pollution’s worst effects are the most vulnerable in our society. Low-income communities and communities of color bear a disproportionate share of air pollution’s destructive consequences, and are at greater risk of dying prematurely because of pollution.4 What’s more, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Black Americans are subjected to higher levels of air pollution than white Americans regardless of their wealth.5

The pandemic has further proven how dramatically and disproportionally health crises can impact disparate populations.6 In the U.S., for example, the pandemic has had a much larger impact on Latinx and Black communities, with Latinx people being 4x more likely and Black people being 5x more likely to be hospitalized than the general population.7 In fact, a preliminary Harvard University study found that even short-term exposure to higher-levels of the pollutant PM2.5 is correlated with an increase of COVID-19 deaths of up to 15 percent.8


New Models for Climate and Health

“If climate change mitigation efforts are designed with people in mind, they can meaningfully improve public health and reduce the burden of disease,” said Noelle Eckley Selin, Ph.D., Director of the MIT Technology and Policy Program.

To that end, Biogen will work with the MIT Technology and Policy Program and the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change to support the creation of new models of how different climate actions impact human health. The insights will be used to bridge research-to-policy gaps, influence policy decisions and advance training of the next generation of scientists and leaders for far-reaching impact. 

Noelle Eckley, Ph.D., Director of the MIT Technology and Policy Program

“Biogen’s collaboration will inject an exciting new facet into our work: inclusion of human health and well-being as key new considerations in decision-making regarding the best pathways forward to address the global climate challenge,” Dr. Selin said.

As pioneers in neuroscience, Biogen aims to be a catalyst for positive change by advancing the science around how fossil fuels impact human health -- including brain health. 

Biogen will be working with the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, the United Nations and others and joined the Business Ambition for 1.5°C, a group of 279 companies representing more than $3.6 trillion in market cap, in calling for more rapid action on the climate crisis.

Biogen plans to eliminate fossil fuel emissions on an accelerated timeframe, integrating green chemistry principles into all stages of therapy development, engaging employees and setting new renewable energy targets for suppliers. The company hopes that together we can create a world where everyone enjoys a healthy climate and a healthy life.

Learn more about our Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives initiative here


“For the pharma industry, the paradox is that we can’t lead in health without reducing our operational impact on the planet. Take our use of fossil fuels: if the world eliminated emissions, average life expectancy would increase 1.1 years, according to a study in Cardiovascular Research. I believe we all must follow the science, adopting climate solutions that also promote human health.

In 2014 we were the first company in the life sciences industry to take a leadership position on climate change by becoming carbon neutral. 

Michel Vounatsos, CEO, Biogen

Now, the scientific consensus is that carbon neutrality is no longer enough. That’s why - with Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives - we are going beyond our previous climate commitments and even net zero to achieve zero fossil fuel emissions and improve public health. It is the next step in our long-standing corporate responsibility commitment. Now is the time to advance a shared vision of a more inclusive and sustainable future, one where science meets humanity.”

 – Michel Vounatsos, CEO, Biogen