Sustainability in healthcare

Two sides of the same coin

Today, the healthcare industry faces a tough reality: when it comes to climate change and its consequences, healthcare is both part of the solution andthe problem. How can this be dealtl with? Which opportunities exist for the healthcare sector?

If the global healthcare sector were a country it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, according to Health Care’s Climate Footprint, a report by Health Care Without Harm, in collaboration with Arup. This is due to the sector’s energy consumption, food production, use of anaesthetic gases, and transportation, all of which are carbon-intensive.

By being a major contributor to climate change, the healthcare sector is part of the problem. But it also stands to be a victim.

The public health community has dubbed climate change as the greatest threat to public health in the 21st century1. Health costs generated by climate change and pollution are estimated to be US$820 billion a year, according to a recent report2. Climate change is making the planet warmer, increasing the risk of wildfires, rising sea levels, extreme heat and other severe weather, air pollution, and droughts.

It is clear that these factors will have a direct impact on health. For example, smoke from fires and higher pollen counts (caused by warmer temperatures) can lead to respiratory disease or exacerbate asthma. Moreover, severe weather — including extreme heat and droughts — can increase the risk of heat-induced illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and heatstroke. Climate change is now evident on every continent. More than one-third of global heat-related deaths can be attributed to climate change, according to a recent study3. Climate change will likely force millions of people to migrate, which could lead to more mental health issues and put further stress on healthcare infrastructures.4

The risk is that the burden on the healthcare industry increases further as global temperatures rise, thereby increasing its own greenhouse gas emissions.
The good news is that solutions are emerging as healthcare professionals rise to this new leadership challenge. We see three main areas of intervention for climate change: Adaptation, Mitigation and Innovation.

Adaptation is already beginning to take place and acceleration is necessary. Hospitals are having to become more resilient to natural disasters, and are redesigning spaces and preparing for massive and sudden crises.

Building such resilience will ensure the healthcare operators, and system as a whole, will be able to respond faster and more efficient. COVID-19 showed that quick t adaptation is both possible and advantageous. Today the world is able to respond to the virus very differently than was the case in 2020. Healthcare operators must be able to respond to climate change today and it is imperative to have your adaptation strategy and implementation plan in place.

With healthcare institutions formulating their strategies to respond and adapt to climate change, they will also need to ensure they mitigate its effects.
Today, mitigation efforts are also being stepped up. Hospitals are engaging in decarbonisation programmes to fight climate change. The difference between a 1°C increase in global temperature and 2°C is huge, and our current trajectory puts us somewhere in the middle. Therefore, it is essential to undertake all possible action to mitigate the more catastrophic increase.

Decarbonisation will enable the sector to shift from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. Pressure to do so is mounting from governments, NGOs, patients, suppliers and partners. Recently the National Health Service (NHS) in England has made clear statements that they will not engage with partners that are not supporting their net-zero journey.

Decarbonisation can happen at every level of your organisation and it is achievable by setting out the right priorities, plans and targets throughout your entire organisation.

The climate change crisis also creates opportunity for much-needed innovation. Healthcare professionals are reassessing all processes and taking the opportunity to design a vast range of exciting new solutions. Nutrition and its benefits to health is one space where innovation is extraordinarily promising and dynamic.

Innovative solutions are at the core of speeding and scaling up the response to climate change. To benefit from fast-emerging innovations, you must ensure that you are part of different innovation ecosystems as well as runyour own innovation labs. This is both a competitive and collaborative space where efforts must be carefully considered.

Reducing Co2 emissions are one of the most recognisable and pressing sustainability challenge.There are several contributors to Co2 emissions across the healthcare value chain and using the the Scope1, Scope2 and Scope3 emissions framework can help to identify them. This s requires the need to have transparency across your entire value chain and the ability to think in terms of systems. Reducing emissions is a challenge for leadership and necessitates being open to game-changing partnerships.

Leaders in healthcare need to show courage and vision. New competences, such as reorganising systems and establishing new stakeholder relationships, are becoming increasingly important to successfully manage the transition to a more sustainable world.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, The Lancet, December 8, 2018
Report: Health Costs from Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Pollution Tops $820 Billion a Year, Natural Resources Defense Council, May 20, 2021
3 The burden of heat-related mortality attributable to recent human-induced climate change, Nature Climate Change, May 2021
4 Planetary Health: Protecting nature to protect ourselves, Island Press, August 2020

Explore additional resource

Net zero in healthcare: how is it possible?

Net zero in healthcare: how is it possible? What is the role of current and future healthcare leaders in driving the sustainability agenda? What are the bold and collective actions to take in line with the Paris Agreement and the UN SDGs, to minimize environmental impact and transform services?

In this episode, Sonia Roschnik, Director of the Geneva Sustainability Centre sat down with Stephanie Allen, Rod Hochman, and Bertrand Levrat to discuss healthcare leadership and sustainability.

Why climate resilience is key to building the health care organization of the future

As climate change accelerates, human health will suffer. Find out how sustainability initiatives can mitigate climate risks while advancing health care equity for all.

Did you find this useful?