Few industries will need to navigate the effects of a changing climate more than healthcare. A recent editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine made the case that doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals already face the human health effects of a warming planet and have a special obligation to push society to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"Although many people consider climate change a looming threat, health problems stemming from it already kill millions of people per year," wrote the authors, a group of physicians. "We believe that those of us who have the privilege to serve in health care also have an obligation to address this major threat. Specifically, we can mobilize to reduce our own carbon footprint and take actions to improve our system's resilience and adaptability to climate change."
While much of the attention on decarbonization is understandably focused on power generation and transportation, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with healthcare would make a big difference. In fact, according to research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, emissions attributed to the healthcare industry accounted for an average of 5% of the total carbon footprint of both the developed nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as well as India and China. In the U.S., healthcare-related emissions are even higher, at 8.5% of the country's total.
Emissions connected to both healthcare facilities, such as hospitals and clinics, as well as the industry's vast supply chain for equipment and pharmaceuticals, are headed in the wrong direction. A report released last year by the nonprofit organization Health Care Without Harm predicted that global emissions from healthcare could triple by 2050 without significant changes to the status quo.
Strategies for decarbonization included efficiency and renewables
There is a growing recognition among healthcare professionals of the urgent need to decarbonize. Groups ranging from Health Care Without Harm to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) to the American College of Physicians all strongly advocate for action on climate change and propose a variety of strategies to reduce emissions.
In fact, Health Care Without Harm's report advocates a number of pathways for healthcare to lower emissions beyond the national targets in the Paris Climate Agreement. Perhaps the most important area of focus is to improve energy efficiency and integrate renewables into existing hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities.
Indeed, about 84% of all healthcare industry emissions are the result of burning fossil fuels to heat and cool hospitals, operate equipment such as CT scans and MRIs, transport patients, and ship equipment and pharmaceuticals to where they are needed. Health Care Without Harm's report advocates a rapid integration of energy efficiency and renewable energy — either via on-site installations of solar panels, wind turbines and energy storage or by purchasing clean energy — at healthcare facilities.
Improving efficiency and accelerating the use of clean energy also have a strong business rationale. For instance, The Commonwealth Fund found that reducing energy use and waste could save hospitals $5.4 billion over five years.
While lowering emissions at healthcare facilities is essential, the majority of the industry's emissions are "Scope 3," meaning they come from healthcare's vast supply chain. In fact, 70% of the industry's emissions originate outside of hospitals and clinics. Nevertheless, healthcare providers can use their significant purchasing power to encourage suppliers of equipment and pharmaceuticals to reduce their emissions.
By unveiling very public pronouncements and strategies to achieve ambitious decarbonization goals, the healthcare industry has embraced its role in society and the individual lives of patients. Few professionals have the same level of trust as doctors, nurses and other health care providers. Groups such as the National Academy of Medicine encourage healthcare professionals to use their position of trust to advocate for aggressive societal action to address climate change. NAM issued a Climate Grand Challenge last year in which the first objective is to communicate that the climate crisis is also an equity and public health crisis.
Turning targets into action
Around the country and the world, there is a significant movement to translate many of these strategies into reality — and to do so in a way that not only improves human health but also economic opportunity and equity for disadvantaged communities.
For example, Kaiser Permanente, the nation's largest integrated nonprofit health system, announced in 2020 that it had achieved carbon neutrality, thanks to a mixture of energy-efficiency measures and on-site renewable energy installations. Advocate Aurora Health, a health system in the Midwest, also has embarked on a plan to power its 27 hospitals and more than 500 clinics with 100% renewable energy.
In Chicago, a former hospital site is being developed into a mixed-use complex with a particular focus on healthcare and sustainability. Among the buildings being developed is the 500,000-square-foot Chicago ARC (Accelerate, Redesign, Collaborate) Innovation building, which will include medical research facilities and has been touted as the "greenest building in the country." The project as a whole is forecast to create 17,000-plus construction jobs and over 30,000 permanent jobs in the Bronzeville area of Chicago.
As healthcare seeks to reduce its own contributions to climate change and propel more ambitious societal action, projects that combine health and sustainability will only become more common. The kind of aggressive decarbonization necessary will require healthcare leaders to forge strategic relationships with companies with experience and expertise in energy and energy markets. For example, Shell Energy has a broad portfolio of experience and expertise that can help healthcare companies identify their own unique decarbonization pathway. For some companies, that may mean focusing on energy efficiency and installing on-site renewables. Others may choose to purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs) and carbon credits.
There is no single strategy that all healthcare companies can follow to achieve their decarbonization goals. But tapping the expertise and experience of Shell Energy will allow healthcare companies to accelerate toward their decarbonization goals while still remaining focused on their main mission of improving human health.