By Samrina Bhatti, Manager, Centre for Health Solutions
The World Health Organisation estimates that, between 2030 and 2050, climate change will be responsible for approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year.1 Climate change affects a number of social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, availability of sufficient food and secure shelter - and experts consider it as the next public health crisis.2 ‘Net Zero’ has been adopted by the UK, the EU, and many other countries around the world as the best strategy to protect global populations from rising temperatures. This week is ‘NetZero Week,’ the UK’s national awareness week aimed at highlighting climate change challenge and providing expert advice and information to help individuals and businesses understand the challenge and how to benefit from making changes.3 This week’s blog builds on NetZero campaign to explores climate change’s impact on public health and how healthcare organisations can prioritise net zero efforts.
The UK government initiatives to tackle climate change
Net zero is not the same as carbon neutral as it is about creating a balance between the amount of greenhouse gases which are released into the atmosphere, and the amount which are taken out. This means that as well as reducing existing carbon emissions, there is also a reliance on carbon off-setting or technology which actively removes carbon emissions from the atmosphere — known as negative emissions technologies (NETs). Carbon neutral can be achieved by just off-setting emissions and doesn’t require individuals, businesses, including healthcare providers, to reduce gas, electricity and fuel consumption.4
On 27th June 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to climate change. The legislation commits to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, compared with the previous target of at least 80 per cent reduction from 1990 levels.5 In November 2020, the UK Prime Minister published ‘The Ten Point Plan’ for a Green Industrial Revolution to help the UK to become a net zero society. He has established a ‘Task Force Net Zero’ to take forward this national priority and is also committing significant funding to change the energy infrastructure and support the technological advancements needed to become net zero. The Government aims to urge countries at the COP26 Summit, which is taking place in Glasgow in November, to join the UK in delivering net zero globally.6
Healthcare organisations are prioritising goals on becoming a ‘net zero’
In late January 2020, the NHS launched its campaign ‘For a Greener NHS’ to support of its ambition set out in the NHS Long Term Plan and deliver on the UK’s commitment of reaching Net Zero, recognising that ‘the climate emergency is a health emergency’ with poor environmental health contributing to major diseases, including cardiac problems, asthma and cancer.7
The NHS’s ‘Delivering a Net Zero National Health Service’ report, published in October 2020, provides a detailed account of NHS’ modelling and analytics underpinning the latest NHS carbon footprint, trajectories to net zero, and the interventions required to achieve that ambition. The report notes that the NHS has been tracking and reporting on its carbon footprint since 2008 and, as the largest employer in Britain, is responsible for around four per cent of the nation's carbon emissions. The report details some of the advances that the NHS has made to improve its carbon footprint, such as investing in electric vehicles, increase in use of telehealth and video conferencing and switching from disposable to reusable equipment. It also identifies that the greatest opportunities (and challenges) are in the supply chain, estates and facilities, pharmaceuticals and medical devices, and travel.8
The NHS has declared its ambition to be the world’s first 'net zero' national health service, The report lays out the direction, scale and pace of changes needed based on adopting an iterative and adaptive approach to climate change and sustainability, with periodic reviews of progress and the level of ambition increasing over time. It also emphasises that every NHS organisation has an essential role to play in meeting this ambition.9
The NHS have set two targets:
- for emissions the NHS controls directly (the NHS Carbon Footprint) - to reach net zero by 2040, with an ambition to reach an 80 per cent reduction by 2028 to 2032
- for emissions the NHS can influence (NHS Carbon Footprint Plus) - to reach an 80 per cent reduction by 2036 to 2039 and net zero by 2045.10
The construction of 40 or so ‘net zero hospitals’ as part of the government’s Health Infrastructure Plan with a new Net Zero Carbon Hospital Standard is expected to contribute to the net zero targets as part of a new national programme for a greener NHS.11
The wider impact of climate change on Public Health
As noted, net zero is a global challenge affecting every society, albeit it is unequal in its impact affecting some populations more severely than others. Moreover, the current global COVID-19 pandemic has improved some aspects of carbon emissions such as virtual consultations but increased others due to need for cold-chain transportation and increase in single use and personal protection equipment. This has reinforced the connection between healthcare, public health and the environment and how action on climate change and sustainability can improve public health and health equity.12
Our November 2020, prediction report ‘Healthcare and life sciences companies have prioritised decarbonisation’, explored the interrelationship between health and the environment.13 We predicted that healthcare organisations and their suppliers will need to develop mitigation strategies to reduce their carbon footprint such as renewable clean energy, sustainably sourced materials across the supply chain, zero-carbon landfill policies and recycling water and waste.
Establishing a more resilient public health infrastructure will require health and care systems to consider the sustainability of initiatives in health protection, prevention and promotion and any related actions on climate change. For example:
- protect through enhanced surveillance, tracking environmental conditions and forecasting disease occurrence linked to climate change
- prevent by monitoring data and developing alerts on health threats such as severe weather events, and infectious diseases outbreaks
- promote by engaging the public, decision makers, and healthcare providers on health-related aspects of climate change, including risks and mitigation strategies
- prolong longevity through research and development of new science and technology solutions, including an impact assessment not only their impact on health outcomes but also on the carbon footprint.14,15
An effective public health response to climate change is essential to prevent illness, enhance public health preparedness, and mitigate health risks. Today climate change is having a clear, albeit unequal, impact on our health and wellbeing. However, unless something is done now the numbers affected and its impact will increase exponentially; making climate change a critical public health emergency. The UK government has recognised this risk and is supporting health system to take actions to combat the effects of climate change to optimise health, environmental, and economic outcomes. Summits like COP26 are critical to driving action and presents an opportunity to engage business and the public in understanding the health implications of our carbon footprint and why net zero is the only answer to global warming.