A roadmap to zero emissions healthcare

By Josh Karliner | April 22, 2021

This is the second Earth Day we have “celebrated” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet while the pandemic rages on as the most serious health crisis in a century, perhaps the greatest health threat that both people and the planet face today is not the coronavirus, but rather the looming climate emergency.

A growing movement in the health sector, ranging from the nurses and doctors on local hospital wards up to the World Health Organization (WHO), recognizes that the climate crisis is a health crisis that could ultimately dwarf the impact of the pandemic. Certainly, COVID, together with the wildfires, floods and other manifestations of a growing climate emergency, have made it abundantly clear that we need to retool healthcare to be both pandemic prepared and climate-ready.

In this harsh light, millions of health professionals have called for a healthy recovery that focuses on climate prevention strategies that reduce the global economy’s reliance on fossil fuels while investing in clean, renewable energy and low-carbon health systems.

One little understood yet important aspect of the climate and health connection is the paradoxical fact that the health sector itself, a significant player in the global economy, makes a massive contribution to the climate crisis and therefore has a vital role in resolving it.

The climate crisis is a health crisis that could ultimately dwarf the impact of the pandemic

Specifically, healthcare’s climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4% of global net emissions (2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent). To provide context, if the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet. Under a business as usual scenario, healthcare’s climate footprint will grow enormously and triple between now and 2050. This is not acceptable.

Instead, the health sector must reinvent itself to address climate crisis and align its growth and development with the goals of the Paris Agreement, setting a course towards net zero emissions by 2050. It must do so while also striving to meet global health goals such as Universal Health Coverage. Such systems change is at once an enormous challenge and also a timely opportunity as the world prepares to emerge from the pandemic.

To support the sector in navigating this transformational change, Health Care Without Harm, together with the engineering firm Arup have forged a Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization. The Road Map effectively provides a plan and charts a course to get healthcare towards zero emissions across three pathways: healthcare delivery and operations, the global supply chain, and the broader economy.

If the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet. Photo by Camilo Jimenez (Unsplash).

The Road Map identifies more than 44 gigatons of emissions reduction that can be achieved over 36 years by moving the sector towards greater systems efficiency and a circular economy, while simultaneously decarbonizing  healthcare-related buildings, electricity, travel, food consumption, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Achieving this cumulative reduction would be equivalent to eliminating one year of the entire world economy’s global greenhouse gas emissions output.

The Road Map shows how all countries must act. It defines how wealthier countries — where health sectors are the most prominent climate polluters — must take the most rapid action to decarbonize. And it explores how low- and middle-income countries can invest in healthcare development, such as powering energy poor health facilities with renewable energy, that takes them on a pathway to zero emissions.

Pursuing such a decarbonization trajectory is a tall order, particularly as the pandemic continues to rage all around us. Fortunately, a growing number of health systems in both developed and developing countries are setting the pace in the global healthcare race to zero emissions.

Next month, the UNFCCC Climate Champions and Health Care Without Harm will announce the first cohort of health systems from every continent, representing thousands of hospitals, who are committing to net zero emissions and joining the Race to Zero. By making this commitment amid a pandemic, these healthcare institutions demonstrate climate leadership in one of the largest and most important sectors of society, while encouraging others to join this movement in the lead up to COP26.

Indeed, the upcoming climate negotiations in Glasgow this November, coupled with trillions of dollars to be invested in COVID recovery, present a golden opportunity to build on this momentum. Governments, UN and multilateral development agencies, the private sector and civil society can all commit to achieving transformational healthcare decarbonization as part of a broader societal transition to zero emissions.

The health sector must seize this moment and provide climate leadership the world so desperately needs. While there is no vaccine for the climate crisis, prevention and preparedness—two fundamental healthcare principles—are what could help save the day.

Health leaders everywhere can lead by example and chart a course to zero emissions and resilience. They can also continue to exert their political and economic influence, as well as their hard-earned moral leadership to help all of us take on the challenge of our generation.

Josh Karliner is International Director for Program and Strategy for Health Care Without Harm, an international non-profit organization.

To find out how you can join the Race to Zero, please click here.

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