Healthcare and Climate Change: Confronting the Carbon Challenge

When we think of healthcare systems (HCS), we envision a network of people, institutions, and resources working diligently to meet our health needs. However, beyond the realm of patient care lies an urgent and often overlooked concern – the environmental impact of the healthcare sector on our planet. As the world grapples with the pressing challenges of climate change, it becomes crucial to shed light on the healthcare industry’s carbon footprint and contribution to global emissions. If global health care was a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest emitter.

Understanding the Healthcare Sector’s Carbon Footprint

The concept of a carbon footprint, which measures an entity’s total greenhouse gas emissions, provides valuable insights into the environmental impact of industries. According to the World Economic Forum, the healthcare industry stands as a significant player among the major sectors contributing to global emissions, responsible for a substantial 4% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. 

For the record, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol divides carbon emissions into three scopes: scope 1 or direct emissions secondary to energy use; scope 2 or indirect emissions secondary to purchased electricity; and scope 3 for the rest of indirect emissions. The warming effects of such emissions, in turn, cause human harm, which is at odds with the mission of healthcare professionals to increase the duration and quality of patients’ lives. It sounds like a vicious circle in one of the most vital spheres.

Unveiling the Emissions Sources within Healthcare

Exploring the major sources of carbon emissions within the healthcare sector is essential for a comprehensive understanding. With their energy-intensive operations and power needs, hospitals and healthcare facilities contribute significantly to healthcare emissions. However, other crucial subsectors, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, medical equipment production, and supply chain logistics, also affect the industry’s carbon footprint.

For example, according to the World Economic Forum, medicines account for 25-33% of all healthcare emissions.

And at the same time, according to EFPIA, by 2021, pharmaceutical production accounted for 323,950 million euro. (see below)

Significant reduction in the carbon footprint of medicines hinges on quantifying and addressing emissions from the vast majority of medicine volumes. IQVIA’s analysis reveals that out of 500 pharmaceutical manufacturers, a mere 20% account for a staggering 80% of all prescription medicines consumed globally, including pills, ampoules, pens, and containers. Therefore, the onus of driving substantial change lies squarely on these manufacturers.

Over the past decade, a few healthcare systems have identified the sources of their carbon emissions. However, to make a significant impact, broader efforts are required, particularly by the major pharmaceutical manufacturers, to comprehensively address the carbon emissions associated with medicine production and distribution.

According to academic studies, healthcare contributes approximately 4.4% of global emissions. Employing the Companies model, we estimate the pharmaceutical industry’s carbon footprint at 750 Mt CO2e, aligning closely with external assessments using similar methodologies. This figure represents 49% of the entire healthcare sector’s carbon footprint, making it the highest estimate calculated by IQVIA.

Impacts of Emissions on Public Health and the Environment

While healthcare providers treat patients impacted by climate change, the industry adds to the problem, perpetuating a vicious cycle. The emissions from healthcare activities harm the environment and adversely affect public health. Air pollution related to healthcare emissions contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, burdening already stretched healthcare resources.

Furthermore, the healthcare industry’s carbon footprint amplifies the effects of climate change, leading to extreme weather events, natural disasters, and the potential spread of infectious diseases. These impacts create a ripple effect, further straining healthcare infrastructure and resources.


Challenges and Solutions for Decarbonizing Healthcare

Making healthcare more sustainable presents unique challenges. The industry faces high infrastructure costs, complex supply chains, and the need for behavioural change, which pose significant hurdles. Despite these challenges, there is hope, as successful initiatives worldwide show promising results.

Some healthcare facilities have taken important steps by using renewable energy sources, implementing energy-efficient designs, and adopting sustainable procurement practices. These measures have effectively reduced their carbon footprint. Collaboration between healthcare organizations, policymakers, and environmental experts is also instrumental in driving positive change.

Regarding pharmaceuticals, certain types of medicine have notably high carbon footprints. To address this, health systems can map the carbon footprints of medicines and identify areas for reductions in global usage. The National Health Service (NHS) has specifically highlighted two areas for action: anaesthetic gases and inhalers.

The use of anaesthetics has steadily increased over the past decade, keeping pace with population growth. However, the resulting carbon footprint has decreased significantly in the last five years. This reduction is mainly due to a conscious shift from desflurane, a common anaesthetic gas with a high global warming effect, to greener alternatives like sevoflurane. The transformation illustrates how the healthcare industry can actively bring about meaningful change to reduce environmental impact.

On the other hand, inhalers have yet to see this pivotal shift in their global emissions. Despite increased usage for asthma and respiratory conditions, their total carbon footprint has also risen. Addressing this challenge requires collective efforts to explore and implement greener inhaler alternatives.

These cases demonstrate the healthcare sector’s potential to impact the environment positively. By adopting sustainable practices and innovative solutions, the industry can continue to provide essential care while minimizing its carbon footprint and safeguarding the planet’s well-being.

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The Path to a Greener and Sustainable HCS Industry

The path towards a greener and sustainable healthcare industry relies on collective action. Public awareness, advocacy, and stakeholder engagement are crucial in fostering a sense of responsibility towards environmental sustainability within the healthcare community. Additionally, supportive policies that incentivize and facilitate the adoption of greener practices can speed up progress.

Embracing sustainability reduces the healthcare sector’s environmental impact and enhances patient outcomes and overall community resilience. Initiatives aimed at sustainability attract talent, boost workforce morale, and solidify the healthcare industry’s role as a cornerstone in the fight against climate change. By working together towards a greener future, the healthcare sector can positively influence the health of people and the planet.

The healthcare industry’s carbon footprint must be addressed when addressing the global climate crisis. Acknowledging the impact of healthcare emissions is the first step towards a sustainable future. The healthcare sector can transform into a greener, climate-conscious entity by leveraging technological advancements, embracing renewable energy, and engaging in collaborative efforts. Together, we can heal ourselves and the planet, ushering in a healthier, sustainable, and resilient world for future generations.