Healthcare must drastically reduce emissions to help prevent new health crises

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A study found that, if healthcare systems were a country, they would be the fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter, writes Jacqueline Cramer [Spiroview Inc / Shutterstock]

Climate change is the biggest health threat of the 21st century and healthcare systems need to significantly reduce their emissions in order to help prevent this from worsening, writes Jacqueline Cramer.

Jacqueline Cramer is a former Dutch minister of housing, spatial planning and the environment.

The COVID-19 crisis has hit the world in an unprecedented way and showed us how fragile our health systems are to large scale health threats. Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 pales in comparison to the impact of climate change on human health if we don’t take urgent action now.

Everybody, including the health care sector, must do their bit to reduce emissions. Ambitious commitments on emissions reductions and decarbonisation from national governments are essential to ensure healthcare makes the transition to a more resilient zero-carbon sector.

Healthcare taking the reins

Climate change is the biggest public health threat of the 21st century, and health systems are already experiencing an influx of patients suffering from the health impacts of climate change.

Whether it is injuries, illness and death due to extreme temperatures and weather events, the spread of infectious disease vectors, increases in waterborne illnesses, or wide-ranging impacts from air pollution, the health effects of climate change are real and being acutely felt by healthcare right now.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that climate change is already contributing to 150,000 deaths per year and that this number will nearly double by 2050 without immediate action.

A previous study found that if healthcare systems were a country, they would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter. They account for 4.4% of net global emissions and 4.7% of EU emissions.

Although there is a concerted pressure on all sectors to shift towards net-zero emissions, governments (and in particular ministries of health) must prioritise the rapid decarbonisation of the healthcare sector.

Moreover, the sector has considerable economic power – it employs 10% of the EU’s workforce, representing 6.4 million people, and health expenditure accounts for 9.9% of EU member states’ GDP.

This highlights how influential the healthcare sector can be in the worldwide ambition of keeping global temperature increase at or below 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement. The upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, Scotland is a pivotal moment for governments to commit to helping their health systems achieve net-zero.

How do we get there?

Hospitals and healthcare providers have already made significant commitments to net-zero. The National Health Service in England was the first public health system to commit to achieving net-zero by 2045 including both its direct emissions and those of its supply chain. It is time for other health systems and governments to follow its lead.

What is required now is a movement of governments following suit to ensure healthcare systems make the connection between climate change and health. Health Care Without Harm’s Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization presents a viable path to zero emissions for any health system worldwide, and the organisation’s Operation Zero project aims to put the European healthcare sector on the same path.

These are concrete ways for governments to scale up their current climate action and set the standard for other health systems across Europe and throughout the rest of the world.

The Dutch case

The Dutch government has set a good example of achieving shared climate goals by actively supporting healthcare organisations and working closely with the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport in knowledge sharing, building a repository filled with best practices, and creating collaborative networks.

The Netherlands is making significant strides in healthcare climate action and is one of four countries currently piloting the Operation Zero methodology.

The Dutch healthcare sector also set up a Green Deal on Sustainable Healthcare in 2018, which has since been signed by more than 200 Dutch parties, including healthcare providers and a range of profit and non-profit organisations.

Among the four goals listed, is a 49% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 (as compared with 1990) The Netherlands has implemented a variety of measures to reach this reduction target, for instance through energy-efficiency of buildings, transport and procurement, use of renewable energy, as well as through a reduction of the amount of energy used by hospitals and other care institutions.

Government action is key

A recent scorecard that ranked countries’ climate plans on the basis of the inclusion of health saw the EU bloc receive a low score due to lack of acknowledgement of health impacts and very little focus on health adaptation. Ambitious climate plans are non-negotiable, we have plenty of evidence of the health co-benefits of emissions reductions and decarbonisation.

Governments, led by their health ministers, need to set ambitious emissions reduction targets for the health sector, implement policy incentives and regulations, and facilitate the health sector to meet its objectives in time.

In the lead up to COP 26, ministries of health and governments are being encouraged to declare their ambitions to both decarbonise and improve the resilience of their healthcare sectors.

In accordance with the policy objectives set, every person working in healthcare will need to play their part in making the transition to net-zero. The healthcare sector has a moral obligation to protect humankind from the worst impacts of climate change, and healthcare workers, management, partners (including those that make up the supply chain) also have a role to play.

Only through a joint effort can we guarantee a healthy planet for current and future generations. Although this is a call on health ministries to declare their ambition to decarbonise and make their health systems resilient ahead of COP 26 – the hope is that these declarations cause a ripple effect, which will lead to decarbonisation across all sectors.

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