In a significant step forward for net zero healthcare, countries responsible for over a third of global healthcare emissions have pledged to develop climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems
Since the announcement at COP26, more countries have followed suit, leading a movement of commitments to healthcare climate action under the COP26 Health Programme.
Growing momentum and awareness of healthcare’s role in combatting climate change is an important first step – now we need to turn that drive into concrete actions that will protect human health from climate change.
Countries need to follow up on their commitments to achieve net zero emissions from their health systems by 2050 or earlier with clear national decarbonisation roadmaps and the resources to implement them.
Healthcare sector needs to lead the way to net zero
Climate change is the greatest public health threat of the 21st century and we are already seeing the health impacts of a changing climate. Injuries, illness, and death due to extreme temperatures and weather events and the spread of infectious disease vectors are just some of the ways climate change is already harming human health. Climate change adds pressure to an already over-stretched healthcare system; importantly, this pressure will only intensify if urgent action to reverse climate change is not taken.
With growing evidence of climate change’s impact on human health and healthcare, it is important to acknowledge how the sector is also contributing to the problem. The healthcare sector is responsible for 4.4% of total global net emissions.(1)
If it were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter on the planet. By taking steps to ensure its operations are climate-smart, the sector has the opportunity to both lead by example and address its own impact.
As the reality of climate change becomes clearer, policy makers and health system leaders must seize the opportunity provided by the COP26 Health Programme and come together to deliver a net zero healthcare sector, across all scopes, in line with the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.
Achieving net zero healthcare
In 2021, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) demonstrated that it is possible for healthcare to reach net zero emissions in a fair and equitable way by setting out a clear path in its Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization.(2)
This ambition requires collaboration across the whole sector, including governments, healthcare providers, suppliers, international agencies, and non-governmental organisations.
Individual healthcare providers are already taking steps to decarbonise their operations, by measuring their emissions, setting goals, and develop- ing robust carbon reduction strategies. However, the support, direction, and joined-up, long-term planning that comes from a system-level approach is equally important to advance net zero healthcare.
Countries that signed up for the COP26 Health Programme have made a public pledge to demonstrate this kind of top-down leadership, but now they must take action. Firstly, they need to calculate the carbon footprint of their healthcare systems and develop a Paris-compatible net zero roadmap. This is no small task, but HCWH Europe is supporting national and regional health authorities to achieve this. Designing a net zero roadmap for healthcare: Technical methodology and guidance (3) was developed in partnership with three European health authorities and it sets out a step-by-step process for establishing a decarbonisation roadmap for healthcare systems – the methodology has been created by the healthcare sector, for the healthcare sector.
What’s next for climate change and the healthcare sector?
As the biggest health crisis facing us today, climate change must be combatted urgently and on all fronts. The healthcare sector needs to come together and take action now. Three health authorities are already working on their decarbonisation roadmaps as a part of the Operation Zero project – the Lazio region in Italy, The Netherlands, and Portugal. We call on all other countries in Europe and beyond to follow their lead. Governments must make a commitment to decarbonising healthcare – join the COP26 Health Programme and develop a roadmap to achieve this by 2050 at the latest.
Achieving a net zero and climate resilient healthcare system is not only possible, it is also essential if the health and wellbeing of future generations is to be protected.
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