OPINION: Charting a course for zero-emissions health care

by Josh Karliner | @JoshKarliner | Health Care Without Harm
Wednesday, 14 April 2021 20:21 GMT

A health care worker sits in an ambulance outside the Dr. Alberto Antranik Eurnekian hospital, in Ezeiza, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The health sector, a major player in the global economy, makes a huge contribution to the climate crisis and therefore has an important role to play in resolving it

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the world a harrowing first-hand look at what a multidimensional crisis on a planetary scale looks like.  Our collective experience over the past year has become sort of a macabre dress rehearsal for the looming climate emergency, which is perhaps the greatest health threat the world faces today.

A growing global health movement whose ranks range from the nurses and doctors on local hospital wards all the way up to the World Health Organization, recognize 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 health care to be both pandemic prepared and climate-ready. 

In this harsh light, millions of health professionals urged world leaders to put public health at the heart of recovery packages. The WHO shared a healthy recovery manifesto 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 major player in the global economy, makes a huge contribution to the climate crisis and therefore has an important role to play in resolving it. 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, health care’s climate footprint will grow enormously and triple between now and 2050.

It is imperative that the health sector reinvent itself to address its own role in the climate crisis. 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 has forged a Global Road Map for Health Care DecarbonizationThe Road Map effectively provides a plan and charts a course to get health care toward zero emissions across three pathways: health care delivery and operations, the global supply chain, and the broader economy. 

It identifies more than 44 gigatons of emissions reduction that can be achieved over 36 years by moving the sector toward 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.

It defines how wealthier countries - whose health sectors are the biggest climate polluters - must take the most rapid action to decarbonize.  And it explores how low- and middle-income countries can invest in health care 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 health care race to zero emissions.  

Recently, the government of Argentina included reducing health care carbon emissions in its climate plans. England’s NHS has developed a plan to get to net-zero by 2040. Several major U.S. health systems, including Kaiser Permanente, Cleveland Clinic and Providence Health have set or met carbon neutrality goals. The state of Chhattisgarh in India is investing in solar power for all of its hospitals and health centres.    

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. 

It is imperative that the health sector seizes this moment and provides the climate leadership the world so desperately needs. While there is no vaccine for the climate crisis, prevention and preparedness - two fundamental health care 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 at Health Care Without Harm, an international non-profit organization. He is co-author of the Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization: A Navigational Tool for Zero Emissions, Climate Resilience and Health Equity.