Interview: The challenge of decarbonising our global health care systems

Environment Journal talks to Will Clark, Executive Director of Health Care Without Harm, an international non-profit organisation that supports health services around the world on their journey to becoming more sustainable. 

If the health sector was a country it would be the fifth-largest CO2 emitter in the world, but decarbonising it is like the ‘proverbial supertanker,’ says Will, ‘It’s going to take a long time to change direction.’

Health Care Without Harms aims to support health care services to turn this wheel by targeting emission reduction in three key areas: 

  • Building
  • Transport
  • Supply Chains

‘The first thing a health organisation can do to decarbonise is reduce its energy consumption, this means shifting away from fossil fuels and to renewables.

‘They can also look at their transport options, this means not just how their staff commute but also how patients get to and from appointments. And the final thing they can do is tackle the delivery of goods, this is a big one because typically around two-thirds of the climate footprint comes from the supply chain.’

According to Will, the NHS is already making a lot of progress in this area by working with suppliers to set decarbonisation commitments and measure emissions. By 2045, the NHS aims to reduce the emissions of its supply chain to net-zero. 

 ‘Health sectors are economically very significant,’ explains Will, ‘they account for around 10% of GDP in Europe and so they have a huge potential to influence suppliers in the sector.’ 

One of the big headline commitments to come out of COP26 late last year was that 50 countries pledged to have climate-resilient and low carbon health systems.

Will says this was a huge achievement but he warns that at the moment, these are just commitments. 

‘The big challenge is getting these governments to follow through on these commitments.’

‘A lot of these commitments are around resilience, which means creating plans to ensure that health sectors become resilient to climate change, of course this is important, but it’s also important to commit to creating low-emission health services.’ 

person wearing lavatory gown with green stethoscope on neck using phone while standing

If there was one main learning from 2021, it is that environmental issues and poor health go hand in hand. From poor air quality increasing the risk of Covid-19 to deforestation increasing the likelihood of future pandemics. 

‘The climate crisis is the most significant environmental and public health threat that we face as a society, yet in the UK, the NHS contributes to around 5% of emissions,’ says Will.

‘There is a big responsibility from the sector to decarbonise, especially when we know the impact that environmental issues are already having on our health.’ 

One of Health Care Without Harm’s main projects is called Operation Zero, the aim of this project is to create a standard methodology for setting national health sectors on the path towards net-zero. 

‘The NHS has made a commitment to reach net-zero by 2045, we want to replicate this around the world.

‘We have doctors, nurses, midwives, and other health professionals within our network who are all galvanizing for action. These are some of the most trusted people in society so it’s important that they use their voice to push for change, to raise awareness, and to speak to patients and the media about these issues. 

‘There was a big health professional contingent present at COP26, so we do think that change is starting to happen, but it’s now important that this comes to fruition with policymakers and healthcare leaders making changes. 

‘We want to see every health system and every national government integrate the health service into their wider decarbonisation efforts and to achieve this we need investment immediately. A lot of the solutions that will help to build a low-carbon health system will also make these systems more resilient. This is about changing the way we think about health and the environment and putting healthcare systems on a course that’s going to lead us to a better place very quickly.’

In related news, Air Quality News reporter Chloe Coules reflects on the role of health at COP26 and explores whether the health emergency of climate change is being taken seriously by world leaders. 

Photo Credit – National Cancer Institute

Pippa Neill


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