The EU healthcare sector is a major contributor to the climate crisis

  • Europe

New report provides first-ever estimate of healthcare’s global climate footprint, calls for zero emissions

CONTACT - Lloyd Evans, Communications & Marketing Manager - lloyd.evans@hcwh.org

If the global healthcare sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter on the planet, according to a new report by Health Care Without Harm in collaboration with Arup.

The GHG emissions of the global healthcare sector are equivalent to that of 514 coal-fired power plants and, as the third largest emitter, the EU healthcare sector accounts for 12% of the global healthcare climate footprint. More than half of healthcare’s worldwide emissions come from the top three emitters – the EU, the USA, and China.

While vastly differing in scale, every nation’s healthcare sector directly and indirectly releases greenhouse gases as it delivers care. Released today, the report Health care’s climate footprint: How the health sector contributes to the global climate crisis and opportunities for action establishes the first-ever estimate of healthcare’s climate footprint, including a breakdown for each EU member state.

The report shows that healthcare’s global climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4% of global net emissions (2 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent) and well over half of healthcare’s global climate footprint comes from fossil fuel combustion.

“Health sector facilities are the operational heart of service delivery, protecting health, treating patients, and saving lives. Yet health sector facilities are also a source of carbon emissions, contributing to climate change. Places of healing should be leading the way, not contributing to the burden of disease,”

- Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General - World Health Organization

Released today (10 September) at events in London, UK, and Medellin, Colombia, the report argues for the transformation of the healthcare sector so that it is aligned with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"This is a very timely deep-dive into the contribution of healthcare to climate change, demonstrating the huge fossil fuel footprint of the equipment and medicines we use on a daily basis. We have a long way to go to prevent today's convenience from causing tomorrow's tragedy."

- Dr Chris Newman, Founder - Doctors for Extinction Rebellion

The report calls for a global roadmap for Climate-smart healthcare in order to reduce emissions whilst meeting goals such as universal health coverage. On September 11, the first European Healthcare Climate Summit will take place at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, bringing together over 120 sustainable healthcare leaders, from health system CEOs and representatives from national ministries of health, to clinicians and other health professionals. It will be the first in a series of annual Summits aimed at developing such a Roadmap for the European region.

“The publication of this report comes at a crucial time for the global health and care sector. Thanks to inspirational young people like Greta Thunberg, and the Extinction Rebellion movement, it feels like more of the world has woken up to the threat of climate breakdown on our planet, and on our health. Our sector is uniquely positioned to tackle the greatest threat to health this century, with our overriding intention to “first, do no harm” giving us the moral obligation to avoid health-harming pollution caused by our activities. The report rightly highlights that immediate action is required, something that we publicly committed to in June this year, by becoming the first healthcare organisation in the UK to declare a climate emergency and deliver zero carbon care by 2040.”

- Dame Jackie Daniel, Chief Executive Officer - Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust 

The report also outlines immediate actions that stakeholders from across the health sector should take, including: 

  • Hospitals and health systems should follow the example of thousands of hospitals already moving toward Climate-smart Healthcare via the Health Care Climate Challenge and other initiatives.
  • National and subnational governments should build on existing initiatives to establish action plans to decarbonise their health systems, foster resilience, and improve health outcomes.
  • Bilateral aid agencies, multilateral development banks, other health funding agencies and philanthropies should integrate climate-smart principles and strategies into their health aid, lending, and policy guidance for developing countries. 

“Hospitals and health care systems paradoxically make a major contribution to the climate crisis, healthcare has to step up and do its part to avoid catastrophic climate change, which would be devastating to human health worldwide.” 

- Josh Karliner, International Director of Program and Strategy - Health Care Without Harm (and one of the lead authors of the report)

The report concludes that health promotion, disease prevention, universal health coverage, and the global climate goal of net zero emissions must become intertwined. 

“The impact of these findings is that we need strong leadership, not only from governments, but the healthcare sector – who can set an example.” 

- Cathy van Beek, Strategic Advisor Sustainable Healthcare – Radboud University Medical Center and Chair - European Healthcare Climate Council

The report will be launched at a high-level panel event hosted and moderated by the Wellcome Trust in London today (September 10). Panellists include Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Dr Jenny Harries OBE and Mandeep Daliwhal, Director of UNDP's HIV, Health, and Development Group, as well as representatives from WHO, NHS, and authors of the report.

For more information about the report, visit noharm.org/ClimateFootprintReport.

Reaction from the healthcare sector:

“Climate change is the biggest public health threat we have ever faced; it is also our biggest opportunity. By embedding true ecological sustainability at the heart of healthcare we will develop global and local solutions to the climate crisis that benefit our communities both now and in the future. This timely report clearly lays out our climate impact and responsibility to act.”

- Dr James Szymankiewicz, GP - Combe Coastal Practice, Ilfracombe, Chair - Devon Nature Partnership, Director of Strategy and Partnerships - The Centre For Sustainable Healthcare

 

“There could be no greater threat to health than the climate emergency; this report confirms that the health sector itself is a major climate polluter worldwide. Healthcare workers therefore have a direct role to play in urgently reducing emissions through adopting green practices both as individual practitioners and across their organisations.”

- Dr Frances Mortimer, Medical Director - The Centre For Sustainable Healthcare