COP27 – Science Day – Healthcare Industry: A Climate Change Criminal Or Victim?

The healthcare industry is currently facing unprecedented pressures with post COVID-19 financial ramifications, inflation and global labor shortages. At the same time, the need for a robust, equitable and resistant healthcare system has never been higher. Post pandemic, there have been several transformative changes and innovation breakthroughs in the healthcare sector. But as technological innovation is accelerating, the industry has been slow to grapple with its environmental impact. The synergetic nature of climate change and healthcare demands that the industry work harder and faster on reducing its carbon footprint.

Healthcare Industry’s Impact On Climate Change

The healthcare industry’s carbon footprint is not an insignificant contribution. In fact, according to a recent  report, the industry contributes almost 5% to global greenhouse gas emissions. Western nations bear the majority of the blame with some countries like Switzerland and the United States contributing as high as 7% and 8% to global greenhouse gas emissions. While all this underscores even more the need for urgent measures,  the financial realities of healthcare worldwide provide a significant roadblock.

Internationally, the healthcare industry is struggling with labor shortages, supply bottlenecks and inflation pressures. The priorities of hospitals in developing countries is even more skewed due to unorganised and poor public health systems, high population pressures and poor infrastructure facilities. In order for healthcare to effectively transition to more environmentally friendly practices, it requires the support of governments and private bodies in the form of research and finance. In addition, regulatory oversight is necessary to ensure commitment.

The healthcare industry has a unique challenge compared to other industries when it comes to reducing its carbon footprint. Patient care and safety must take precedence over any kind of carbon cut measures. Hospitals also operate on razor thin margins and experience frequent overflow of patients. Investing in carbon reduction measures in healthcare therefore, requires a longer-term and systematic approach.

What Can The Healthcare Industry Do to Tackle Its Carbon Footprint?

At this time, carbon footprint in healthcare can be tracked from three main sources: energy consumption, transport, and use/disposal of products. Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are both large sources of emission. When it comes to indirect emissions, the biggest category of emissions comes from medications and food.

So what measures can hospitals take to tackle their carbon footprint head on? Let’s discuss.

  • Transitioning to Renewable Energy: Switching to renewable fuels and alternatives for lighting and heating in hospitals will make a major difference in reducing their carbon footprint. In the United States, for instance, lighting contributes 16% of end use of electricity in hospitals. Space and water heating take up an additional amount. A switch to LEDs and renewable electricity sources can be an effective measure with immediate and easily measurable returns.
  • Reducing Transport’s Impact: Hospitals can commit to using zero emission vehicles for transport. The UK’s NHS is an example in this regard and produced the world’s first zero emission ambulance in 2021. Introducing low-emission vehicles in a hospital’s fleet would be an excellent step to reduce its carbon footprint.
  • Reducing Waste: Waste from operating rooms and other areas in hospitals is a significant contributor to its carbon footprint. Hospitals can reduce this impact by switching to reusable supplies, introducing more effective recycling programs and identifying main sources of waste. It is important to note that waste in hospitals is not limited only to physical waste in the form of medical supplies. Hospitals can accumulate waste in the form of waste energy in ventilation, heating and cooling. Improving energy efficiency of current systems and installing more renewable energy sources for new systems is an effective solution to tackle this problem.
  • Sustainable Purchase and Supply Chains: Hospital supply chain emissions come from chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food and devices. Putting pressure on healthcare suppliers to introduce more sustainable practices and reducing single-use items in the meantime are ways to tackle the problem. Government intervention in this regard would be equally beneficial. For instance, several essential hospital tools like blood pressure cuffs and laparoscopic equipment are designed for disposal. The manufacture of replacements for such equipment  forms part of the overall emissions of hospitals and also adds significantly to a hospital’s expenses. Governments can put pressure on companies to design products for reuse in order to receive licenses and approval and thereby ensure more sustainable supply chains.

As the burden of disease increases, so too will the pressure on healthcare  systems worldwide to provide a greater number of hospital stays and medical appointments. This will lead to increased emissions stemming from inefficiencies, such as more overprescribing and preventable medical errors. Healthcare systems cannot afford to wait for another pandemic-like situation before tackling their impact on climate change and consequently global health. They must act now.

COP 27: Connecting World Leaders for a Better Planet

The 2022 Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP27) provides an opportunity for global leaders to discuss the various environmental challenges facing the world today and the ones still to come. COP27’s mission is to facilitate climate action through collaboration, financing efforts and science backed pledges for a better tomorrow.

At COP’s Science Day, the science and academic community will get a platform to come together and provide credible, data based and scientific solutions for climate change concerns. The panel discussions will allow different stakeholders to discuss the year’s landmark science reports and find linkages that will move the climate change agenda forward.