By Emily May, Research Analyst, Centre for Health Solutions

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Last week, our Life Sciences & Healthcare UK leader James Gregson moderated a Reuters’ webinar, Pharma’s climate goals: The roadmap to delivery, with leaders from AstraZeneca, Roche and Health Care Without Harm. The discussion focused on the current pharma sustainability landscape and how to collaborate, accelerate and deliver climate commitments and embed them into pharma organisations’ DNA.1 Healthcare’s carbon footprint is estimated to have increased by 40 per cent since 1990 providing the pharma industry with an opportunity and responsibility to make a real difference. While there are promising signs across the sector of an increased willingness and commitment to counteract climate change, including adopting a more stringent timetable by which to meet carbon net-zero goals, the panel discussion and the focus of this blog is whether the pace of change is advancing fast enough and what more do companies need to do?

Pharma’s current climate sustainability landscape

Like most other industries, many pharma companies have set ambitious emissions targets and declared their commitment to lower their environmental footprint over the next few decades. In response to the audience polling question on their organisations’ level of focus on climate sustainability, 36 per cent felt there was growing concern with investment and headcount capabilities increasing while another 36 per cent believed their companies are highly concerned with a strong focused effort and long-existing investment. When asked about the biggest challenges they faced in setting and executing on climate goals, the biggest challenge identified is measuring and understanding the full scope and impact across stakeholders (Figure 1).

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The panellists agreed that these were important challenges for the industry to address and that across the health ecosystem progress towards carbon neutrality is patchy and lagging the progress seen in other industries. They also acknowledged that different players are at different places in their journey, for example, many early-stage life science companies are only deciding to take the steps to deal with carbon emissions once they become a larger, well-established company. Nevertheless, the carbon reduction initiatives introduced by big pharma frontrunners, who have been developing the technology and testing use cases, is benefitting the entire sector.

At an individual level, people throughout the sector are engaged increasingly in the call for action against climate change. The panellists acknowledged that as individuals advocating for change becomes more prominent, the momentum behind their organisations desire to better understand and reduce their carbon footprints increases. Furthermore, there is a growing recognition that the healthcare mission needs to change to address climate change as a global healthcare imperative and a need to reframe the climate change crisis as a public health prevention issue. As healthcare takes steps towards a focus on prevention, not just cure, finding climate solutions to tackle the health of the population will continue to gain momentum.

This led to a discussion around the moral authority placed upon the sector to move away from fossil fuels, with the drive to reduce deaths, the prevalence of asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, and other diseases caused by air pollution. ‘In 2018, more than eight million people died from burning fossil fuels making this the greatest vector of disease on the planet, but this human cost is not considered in the price of petrol or electricity.’2 Meanwhile, corresponding healthcare costs are being pushed onto society, but a fundamental change to transform the price of carbon that reflects its true damage is required. While there is the beginning of an integration between environmental health and social determinants of health, given the realisation that improved health of the population is a direct benefit of carbon action, health outcomes need to take the centre stage of policy and negotiations within the pharma and healthcare sectors.

How to ensure intention becomes a reality

Projects undertaken throughout the pharma industry should be based on scientific considerations with long-term sustainability as a main priority. As energy efficiency improves, outgoing costs will decrease meaning the steps taken are a profitable venture, despite the often-considerable initial investments. Three crucial factors for achieving success are:

  • full support of the majority shareholders who push for excellence in sustainability and investors who have the influence to ask for plans, improvements and goal setting
  • goals that are real, measurable and achievable with an action plan of how to succeed
  • a decentralised approach for developing and running the projects.

These climate goals cannot be looked at in isolation from the wider sustainability imperatives of the industry, and a sector focused on achieving a healthy population and serving society. Therefore, companies should align their goals not just to carbon reduction, but to improving the wider societal and planetary impact of their organisations. For example, when prescribing and switching medications, while the economic costs of each option are considered, the cost to the environment is beginning to influence these recommendations.

The development of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines in less than 12 months has created further momentum in innovation within the industry that, if it continues, could lead to significant scientific breakthroughs and the ability to fulfil the growing call to go beyond drugs and look directly at causes or preventative mechanisms. In addition, Health Care without Harm suggested that all players should move more upstream to tackle the environmental issues like pollution and food and water quality, to prevent the causes of cancer and tackle diabetes.

How collaboration and partnerships can accelerate change 

Importantly, the impact of partnerships and collaborations across the sector cannot be undervalued, especially as the pharma supply chain is credited with being responsible for around 70 per cent of a pharma companies carbon footprint. It is also extremely complex with many interdependencies and connections meaning the measurability and visibility of cause and effect is usually limited to just one or two actions. More innovative ways of working together and connecting information in a way that is secure and respects the privacy of individuals are therefore crucial, requiring the whole biopharma supply chain to establish partnerships and interconnections, and share information. A large pharma company may have tens of thousands of direct suppliers and, if you delve down to the next levels, hundreds of thousands. Many of those suppliers are shared across the industry, amplifying the need to work in partnership as a sector to reduce suppliers carbon footprints. Therefore, a significant commitment across the supply chain ecosystem with supplier partnerships is crucial to achieving true sustainability.

A level playing field with harmonised goals and regulations is necessary, combined with a universally agreed methodology for measuring and reporting the impact of sustainability interventions. The pharma industry is supportive of the Paris Agreement; however, no company can achieve the goals alone and therefore a consistent approach that enables simple evidence-based insights that can lead to change across the sector is needed to achieve significant progress. There is a request from industry for harmonised regulation that levels the playing field, enabling pharma companies of all sizes globally to work consistently towards a sustainable future.

Furthermore, there is a poverty of data across the industry with companies not always willing to disclose specific information and data collection methods being incredibly intensive. There is potential for the passive use of technology to obtain dynamic data from systems to gain a clear understanding and develop actionable insights. However, to harness this technology, interoperability across systems and the industry needs to be achieved. Life cycle analysis of individual products is beneficial on a limited scale, but if the insights gained provide a robust understanding which can be extrapolated across the company and further, frameworks can be developed to replicate the success.

Summary

With the increased opportunities to work together in pre-competitive and non-competitive ways and to implement the technological advances to obtain data-driven insights across the supply chain, the pharma industry has the potential to expand and accelerate its approach to tackling the climate crisis and build on the momentum achieved so far. As a first step, there is a pressing need to reduce unnecessary complexity and automate processes to generate simple scientific insights that help reduce the carbon footprint and improve the sustainability of the supply chain. A harmonised, data-driven approach will also enable smaller companies to begin reducing their carbon footprint.

Even though many of the systems, suppliers and companies are competitors, addressing climate change needs to be a team sport with uniform processes and standards adopted globally. As data-driven advances and the potential for sector-wide collaboration guides the industry towards a more sustainable future, the execution of the commitments to reduce environmental impact and reach ambitious net-zero targets needs to be as bold as the targets set.  This will require pharma companies to link emission reduction targets to their economic value and core long-term business model

Click here to listen to the panel’s insights in detail and watch the full event on pharma’s efforts to fight climate change.

Emily May

Emily May - Research Analyst, Centre for Health Solutions

Emily is a Research Analyst for the Centre for Health Solutions where she applies her background in both scientific research and pharmaceutical analytics to produce supported insights for the Life Sciences and Healthcare practice. Within the Centre, she performs thorough analysis and research to help find solutions for the challenges impacting the industry and generating predictions for the future. Prior to joining the centre, Emily worked as an Analytical Scientist conducting physical chemistry analysis on early stage drug compounds and previously lived in Antwerp, Belgium where she researched and developed water-based adhesive films.

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1 https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2021/02/deaths-fossil-fuel-emissions-higher-previously-thought
2 Reuters Events Webinar: Pharma’s climate goals: The roadmap to delivery · Thursday, 17 June

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