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After COVID, can healthcare save the public from climate change?

As the world’s fifth largest climate-polluting sector, healthcare can lead us on a planet-saving mission

Greening healthcare
Illustration by Benoit Tardif

Since the start of the pandemic, doctors and health authorities have emerged as national leaders. Their advice for battling COVID-19 was occasionally mocked or ignored, but few would argue in the end with the care, wisdom and commitment shown by the medical profession – nor with their innovation skills, in developing, testing and distributing effective vaccines in under a year.

But can they do it again? A new study is urging the healthcare sector to undertake another life-saving mission: leading the charge against the climate crisis. According to the report, issued by global advocacy organization Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), “The entire sector must mobilize and transform itself to help protect public and planetary health from climate change.”

As HCWH founder and president Gary Cohen said in introducing the report, “You can’t have healthy people on a sick planet.”

The first step in the Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization is for health systems to acknowledge the damage they do. Healthcare generates 10% of the global economy and produces 4.4% of net global emissions. If this sector were a country, the report says, “it would be the fifth-largest climate polluter on the planet.”

Achieving zero carbon emissions would be a long, hard road for healthcare – as it’ll be for every industry. But imagine if hospitals and health systems invested the same effort and conviction in this struggle that they’ve shown in beating back COVID. In fact, this is how HCWH believes healthcare’s climate battle should start: with every national government declaring that the climate crisis constitutes a health emergency, requiring “concerted national and global action.”

Record-breaking temperatures in Western Canada have already killed hundreds of Canadians this year and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment cautions that strokes, heart disease, cancer and respiratory diseases are all worsened by air pollution created by wildfires. A 2020 study by Health Canada concluded that “hundreds to thousands of premature deaths per year [are] attributable to wildfire particulate matter” in Canada.

By reframing climate as a health emergency, HCWH hopes health professionals will bring new energy and credibility to the lagging carbon wars. An Ipsos poll in March showed that healthcare workers (at 69%) and doctors (at 67%) are Americans’ most trusted professionals, ranking well ahead of teachers and the armed forces (61%), scientists (60%), the police (49%), clergy and judges (41% each) and bankers (34%). If health officials can put whole countries on lockdown, they may also be able to sell the behavioural changes required in zero-carbon society.

“You can’t have healthy people on a sick planet.”
— Gary Cohen, founder and president, Health Care Without Harm

First, healthcare must clean up its act. “Prevention, preparedness, and equity are paramount,” warns the report. “Health care must become climate-smart, charting a course toward zero emissions that is inextricably linked with building resilience and meeting global health goals. Just as the pandemic has exposed the fragility and inequities of social safety nets, the sustainability struggle must consider ‘health equity.’” It continues: “Covid-19 response and recovery also provides an opportunity to build back better and invest in climate-smart (resilient and zero emissions) health care as a disaster preparedness and prevention strategy.”

HCWH’s “road map” proposes actions that would reduce total healthcare emissions between 2014 and 2050 by 4.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide. To put this win in perspective, say the authors, “this cumulative reduction is equivalent to the entire world economy’s global greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.”

How does the healthcare sector pull off this transformation? The report prescribes all-out sectoral, multi-industry and global collaboration: “Health care delivery, facilities, and operations, the sector’s supply chain, and the broader economy must all transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable, healthy energy.” HCWH sees three high-impact pathways to zero emissions, starting with decarbonizing healthcare delivery, facilities and operations; using healthcare’s procurement clout to lead the decarbonization of its supply chains, which account for 70% of the sector’s total emissions; and ensuring that health professionals advocate for society-wide decarbonization as a way of reducing the burden of disease.

This is the silver lining that will make all this work worthwhile, the authors note. “Health care climate solutions can be more cost-effective than business as usual. Climate-smart solutions can save health care systems operating costs and reduce countries’ healthcare costs by reducing the burden of disease caused by pollution.”

Prognosis: With society definitely feeling under the weather, decarbonization could be just what the doctor ordered.

A version of this story appeared in the Summer Issue of Corporate Knights magazine.

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