WHO report highlights health sector’s carbon footprint

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Cutting carbon dioxide emissions in the health sector must form part of a comprehensive package of measures to mitigate the impact of climate change at the December climate conference in Copenhagen, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

draft report by the WHO and Health Care Without Harm, an NGO, says hospitals have a major role to play and can reduce their environmental impact by using alternative energy sources, designing ‘greener’ buildings, and being more efficient in their use of water, transport and food. 

By “shopping green”, the health sector can make its own operations more efficient and can help leverage broader change throughout the economy, according to the report. 

The authors also call on the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 to specifically promote climate change mitigation by the health sector. 

It is suggested that prioritising primary health care and pursuing disease prevention strategies, in order to lower dependence on resource-intensive therapies, can simultaneously reduce the burden of disease and the health sector’s fossil fuel consumption. 

Setting an example 

The UK has taken the lead in this area, according to the report, and its National Health Service has proposed a range of measures including offering fewer meat and dairy products on its menus. 

The NHS in England calculates that it spends £20 billion a year on goods and services, which translates into a carbon footprint of 11 million tonnes – 60% of the NHS’s total carbon footprint. 

Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, England, has reduced the number of cars on the campus by 16%, with staff car use down 22%. The health authorities have commissioned a bus to the hospital, offered discounted bus passes and introduced interest-free loans for bicycles as well as a car share scheme. 

At the Pilgrim Hospital, Lincolnshire, England, a biomass boiler will come into operation next year as part of a plan to cut its CO2 emissions by 50%. The boiler will run on locally harvested and renewable woodchips and will be supplemented by a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant which will generate electricity for hospital operations. 

Energy savings 

A range of projects across the globe have been highlighted as examples of how hospitals can implement significant changes. 

Torun City Hospital in Poland is part of the WHO’s ‘Healthy Cities’ initiative and has incorporated sustainability criteria into renovation and expansion projects. Improved insulation, room temperature control and modern heaters have helped bring energy savings of 30% in renovated buildings and 54% in new buildings. 

Saving energy is also a priority at Constance Hospital in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, where CO2 emissions have been cut by over 25% following a recent modernisation. The hospital installed solar panels and CHP technology that has 75% efficiency (versus 35% efficiency of conventional generators). In addition, buildings and windows throughout the hospital were equipped with thermal insulation. 

The report, by the WHO and ‘Health Care Without Harm’, outlined a range of ways that healthcare institutions can help cut their carbon output. 

It listed seven elements for a climate-friendly hospital: 

  • Energy efficiency: Reduce hospital energy consumption and costs through efficiency and conservation measures; 
  • Green building design: Build hospitals that are responsive to local climate conditions and optimised for reduced energy and resource demands;
  • Alternative energy generation: Produce and/or consume clean, renewable energy onsite to ensure reliable and resilient operation; 
  • Transportation: Use alternative fuels for hospital vehicle fleets; encourage walking and cycling to the facility; promote staff, patient and community use of public transport; site health-care buildings to minimise the need for staff and patient transportation;
  • Food: Provide sustainably grown local food for staff and patients;
  • Waste: Reduce, re-use, recycle, compost; employ alternatives to waste incineration, and; 
  • Water: Conserve water; avoid bottled water when safe alternatives exist. 

Dr Pendo Maro, joint senior climate change and energy advisor at Health Care Without Harm and the Health and Environment Alliance said Europe's health sectors have a key role to play in Copenhagen. "With the world's governments set to establish a new agreement for addressing climate change in Copenhagen this December, it is essential that Europe's health sector speaks out and puts pressure on the EU and our governments to advocate for a strong stance that addresses the most serious environmental health issue that the world faces today," he said. 

Maria Neira, director of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) public health and environment department, said the health sector can lead the way in fighting climate change. "By reducing its climate footprint and moving toward carbon neutrality, the health sector can demonstrate the path forward in this age of global warming, thereby playing a leadership role in advocating for a healthy and sustainable future." 

Josh Karliner, international coordinator for Health Care Without Harm, one of the authors of the report, said the document "begins to define a framework for analysing and addressing the health sector's climate footprint". He said it will form the basis for consultation with healthcare professionals, hospitals and health systems around the world "in order to build a global network that can advocate for climate friendly health care".

The UK-based Climate and Health Council has issued a declaration signed by more than 150 organisations and individuals, primarily in Europe, that calls on "health-related institutions to adopt sustainable practices, recognising that in doing so we will be greatly enhancing the persuasive power of our advocacy as well as contributing to the transition to a low-carbon world". 

The health impact of climate change has been well documented, amid serious concerns that changing temperature and rainfall could lead to increases in cholera and diarrhoeal diseases, as well malaria, dengue fever and other infections carried by vectors. 

The WHO has warned that climate change threatens to "halt or reverse" the progress made by the global public health community in combating infectious disease. 

Floods and droughts could also have a dramatic impact on health, especially for people living in coastal and small island communities. 

A new emphasis is emerging in the debate over climate change and health, with greater consideration being given to the contribution of health services to carbon emissions. The potential to reduce the environmental impact of public health services is considerable. The National Health Service (NHS) in England has calculated its carbon footprint at more than 18 million tonnes of CO2 per year, or 25% of total public sector emissions. 

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