The healthcare paradox

Breakline

How the health sector contributes to the global climate crisis

The paradox of healthcare is, while it is crucial for saving lives and improving well-being, it also creates significant CO2 emissions, which hinders environmental sustainability goals. The healthcare industry – including hospitals, clinics, and pharmaceutical production – is essential for the health and well-being of populations. However, these services rely on energy-intensive processes, transportation, and the production of medical equipment. According to World Economic Forum Research, healthcare systems account for over 4% of global CO2 emissions. This figure is closer to 10% of national emissions for most industrialised nations. It puts the healthcare industry’s emissions above those of the aviation or shipping sectors.

  • Healthcare’s climate footprint equals 4.4% of global net emissions (2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent). 
  • Healthcare’s climate footprint equals the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 514 coal-fired power plants. 
  • If the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet. 

It is paradoxical that healthcare, whose primary objective is to protect and promote health, is also a significant contributor to the climate crisis, which is undoubtedly the most significant health threat of the 21st century. Therefore, the healthcare sector has a crucial role in resolving the climate crisis. 

Extending the ‘do-no-harm’ principle

The industry – including health technology companies, healthcare systems, and other stakeholders – must act. It is time to extend the principle of “first, do no harm” – the very foundation of healthcare – to the planet.

The health sector must take responsibility for its environmental impact, as highlighted in the Health Care Climate Footprint Report 2019 by Health Care Without Harm (HCWH). The report emphasises the need for the healthcare industry to take responsibility for its carbon footprint and reduce its environmental impact. But how?

  • Healthcare must respond to the growing climate emergency by treating those made ill, injured, or dying from the climate crisis and its causes. Meanwhile, healthcare must practice primary prevention and radically reduce its emissions. 
  • Healthcare climate action will require health sector facilities, systems, and ministries to work with manufacturers and suppliers of healthcare goods and services to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 or before. 
  • The sector must undertake this effort while simultaneously meeting global health goals such as universal health coverage and working to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 
  • Several health systems in multiple countries are already leading the way toward decarbonisation, serving as models for the sector. 

Rising to the challenge

Ensuring high-quality healthcare services while reducing CO2 emissions poses significant challenges. It requires a collaborative effort between healthcare providers, government agencies, and the private sector to develop and implement sustainable solutions.  

By achieving this balance, the healthcare industry can set an example of responsible and sustainable business practices and inspire others to follow suit. Our health and the health of our planet depend on it. 

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Patrick Filius

Chief Impact Officer

patrick.filius@impactstewards.com