How Healthcare Organizations Can Aid Decarbonization

Updated on February 24, 2023

It goes without saying that those in the healthcare industry are acutely aware of the impact climate change is having on humankind. A statement issued by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) in December 2021 cited a study showing that over five million people died because of temperature extremes between 2010 and 2019, and noted the manner in which greenhouse-gas emissions “cause or exacerbate myriad health problems associated with air pollution, severe weather, wildfires, extreme temperatures, changes in vector ecology, and disturbances in the food supply, among other stressors.”

The kicker is that the healthcare sector itself contributes to this growing crisis. Per that same NAM statement, 8.5 percent of the U.S. carbon emissions can be attributed to the healthcare sector, though some estimates place that as high as 9.8 percent. The total rose by six percent between 2010 and 2018, and altogether the U.S. is responsible for a quarter of the global health emissions.

Small wonder that some believe the Hippocratic Oath should essentially be the industry’s stance on the environment: First, do no harmthat those in the sector should take steps to reduce energy use, increase efficiency and be mindful of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which called for emissions to be reduced by half by 2030.

That has led to a host of international, national and local initiatives, including the formation of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), a coalition of 180 countries that promotes renewable resources and technologies, and NAM’s Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the U.S. Health Sector, an alliance involving public and private leaders within the industry.

The goal of every organization, no matter how small or large, was best summed up by Dr. Lisa Cerceo, chair of the Health and Public Policy Committee of the New Jersey chapter of the American College of Physicians, in an interview with the website “Greening our own backyards is one very tangible action that we can take.”

That’s true, no matter how big you consider your backyard to be. While Cerceo and her task force have identified 13 initiatives that need to be addressed within their state, IRENA has set about examining the energy usage of the U.S., China, Germany, India and Japan, who between them produce 67 percent of the G20’s energy supply and account for nearly half of worldwide energy demand. IRENA concluded that emissions could be slashed by 70 percent by 2050, with half of that due to the use of renewables, and nearly half resulting from increased efficiency.

The NAM body, meanwhile, has zeroed in on the healthcare supply chain, as well as care delivery, professionals’ education and policy, financing and metrics. The supply chain is particularly critical, since it is roughly responsible for 80 percent of the industry’s carbon footprint, an issue that can be curtailed, according to a NAM Call to Action, by producing more sustainable products and packaging, and enacting initiatives that reduce emissions and waste.

On the delivery side, there needs to be a “systemwide commitment and change to bring national hospital emissions down to more sustainable levels,” per that same CTA, as well as a commitment to educate individual professionals about climate change. And finally, NAM concluded that “standardized sets of sustainability metrics with clear expectations for reporting” will make the mission abundantly clear to all concerned.

The CTA concluded with a stark reminder:

The health impacts of climate change are real and are happening today, and the U.S. health sector faces immense opportunities for leadership and action. As a critical first step, the collaborative will leverage the NAM’s independence and authority to mobilize the sector to establish shared goals for decarbonization and commit to sustainable and equitable transformation. We hope that by spotlighting the human health effects of climate change and the capabilities of public–private collaboration, the collaborative’s efforts will reverberate beyond the health sector and mobilize other sectors to take action against climate change to achieve the broader systemic transformation that is needed. The time for leadership, commitment, and action is now — our health and future hang in the balance.

As noted in a post on the website, healthcare’s challenges in the sustainability sphere are made all the more daunting because of the all-day, every-day nature of the industry, and the strain that places on systems and organizations. (It’s not like facilities ever close down for the night.) Couple that with health and safety concerns – concerns that have only grown as a result of the pandemic – and the issue becomes more acute. Ditto for the increasing energy expenditures and the need for facilities to expand.

That same post noted that organizations can take small steps, like installing LED exit signs and light fixtures, and bigger ones, like building facilities that make it possible to maximize natural light and adding ultra-efficient HVAC systems and smart gadgetry. A California-based company called Turntide Technologies has determined, for example, that an HVAC platform using a smart motor system can slash a company’s HVAC energy consumption by 64 percent. That is particularly significant when one takes into account the fact that heating and cooling systems account for 40 percent of the energy used by commercial and industrial buildings, and that such buildings consume 40 percent of the electricity used around the globe.

In all the worldwide market for smart buildings, which stood at $63 billion in 2020 (including $20.5 billion in the U.S.) is expected to balloon to $111.5 billion by 2026.

The bottom line is that there are many perspectives from which the issue of decarbonization can be viewed, and many angles from which it can be attacked. But certainly it requires sustained attention and effort. Climate change is, as NAM president Victor J. Dzau said, “one of the most pressing existential threats to human health.” Drawing together to address it, he added, is essential, and requires the utmost urgency – particularly in the healthcare sector.