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Health systems urged to develop green cure for fast-rising emissions

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hospitals and other healthcare facilities worldwide can prepare better for both climate change and future pandemics by adopting green technology and cutting planet-heating emissions from their operations and supply chains, health experts said on Wednesday.

A new roadmap setting out ways for the health sector to reach net-zero emissions said healthcare has a “substantial” climate footprint, accounting for 4.4% of global emissions, mostly due to the use of fossil fuels for energy and products.

Without action to shrink those emissions, they would more than triple by 2050, equalling the annual emissions from 770 coal-fired power plants, said the report from nonprofit network Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) and engineering firm Arup.

Co-author Josh Karliner of HCWH said the world was already experiencing twin climate and health emergencies, such as respiratory illness from fossil fuel pollution and injuries and smoke inhalation caused by wildfires.

“Health care bears the brunt of these two crises while also, ironically, contributing to them through its own emissions,” he said in a statement. “It’s imperative for health leaders to lead by example and act now to reach zero emissions by 2050.”

Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has put additional strain on health systems, including a rise in intensive care patients, mass vaccinations and an increase in single-use protective equipment for staff, creating large amounts of waste.

Despite this, Karliner and others said nations from Britain to Argentina and India were pressing ahead with efforts to make their health systems climate-friendly, taking advantage of increased spending to bolster health and create green jobs.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that technical and operational challenges within the health sector can be solved at a breathtaking pace when they are sufficiently focused, adequately resourced, and receive consistent political support,” David Nabarro, COVID-19 special envoy for the World Health Organization (WHO), wrote in a foreword to the report.

“A similar well-directed effort is required to address the health impacts of climate change,” he added.

Maria Neira, director of public health and environment for WHO, told journalists the best way to recover from the COVID-19 crisis would be to fight climate change and air pollution, reducing people’s vulnerability to future threats.

NET-ZERO NHS

England’s National Health Service (NHS) last October announced a plan to cut to net-zero the carbon footprint of its direct operations by 2040 and its supply chain by 2045.

It will use measures such as new ways of delivering care at or closer to home to reduce patient journeys, greening its vehicle fleet including road-testing a zero-emissions ambulance, and building new hospitals that generate net-zero emissions.

The NHS said its commitment came amid “growing evidence of the health impacts of climate change and air pollution” and aimed to save thousands of lives and hospitalisations.

The health effects of a warming planet include deaths from heatwaves, the spread of diseases due to floods and shifts in insect populations, and more cardiac arrests and hospital admissions for stroke and asthma linked to high levels of air pollution.

The new roadmap, launched at the Skoll World Forum, details national healthcare emissions data for 68 countries and recommendations on how to decarbonise the health sector.

It urges wealthy countries with big-emitting health systems to cut emissions the fastest and steepest, while calling on poorer countries to develop their health infrastructure using clean energy, such as solar power, and other green technologies.

K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, said efforts already underway to curb emissions and energy consumption from health facilities in his country would likely pick up speed as buildings are revamped or new ones built.

The pandemic’s disruptions to global supply chains forced India to produce some of the medical equipment it needs locally rather than importing it, which has helped reduce energy consumption and emissions, he noted.

“If that becomes part of the DNA of the future development of our health system, then I think we will have made a very useful transition,” he said.

Low-carbon measures recommended in the roadmap, if implemented, could reduce the health sector’s emissions in the next three decades by the equivalent of the entire world economy’s emissions in 2017, the report said.

The measures include powering health care with 100% renewable energy, producing low-carbon pharmaceuticals, recycling and cutting down on waste, providing sustainably grown food, and shifting to zero-emissions transport and buildings.

Health Care Without Harm also urged governments to track health system emissions and identify ways to reduce them under their national climate action plans for the Paris Agreement, after Argentina became the first to do so late last year.

Karliner urged hospitals and health providers to join a U.N.-backed “Race to Zero” campaign, which encourages businesses, cities and universities to set science-based targets for net-zero emissions.

The health sector will announce its first members of that campaign in late May, he added.

Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org/climate

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