Following the launch of the first citizens’ assembly on climate change, which is discussing how the country can best get to ‘net zero’, Sir Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the NHS, has announced that the NHS and its staff will take this year to tackle the “climate health emergency”.
Central to the ‘Greener NHS’ campaign, which aims to prevent illness, reduce pressure on health service and save lives, is the appointment of a new ‘Net-Zero Expert Panel’, which will advise on a “practical route map” to reduce the NHS’s carbon emissions to net-zero.
The panel will be led by Nick Watts, Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown, who will be joined by Sonia Roschnik, Director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, Richard Smith, Chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, and representatives of several UKHACC members, including Fiona Godlee (Editor-in-Chief of the BMJ) and Donal O’Donoghue (Registrar of the RCP).
An interim report will be produced in the summer with the final report expected in the Autumn, ahead of the COP26 International Meeting in Glasgow.
Largest public sector emitter
The potential co-benefits to health, environmental and the economic co-benefits of a net-zero health service are huge, as currently the NHS is the biggest single emitter in the UK public sector, and is responsible for an estimated 4-5% of the country’s carbon footprint1. More widely, a recent assessment of the combined carbon footprint world’s health services found that, if were a country, they would be the fifth largest emitter2.
Dr Richard Smith, Chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, said:
“The World Health Organisation has described climate change as ‘the defining health challenge of our time’, and through heatwaves, flooding, and air pollution, it is already shortening the lives of people in the UK and around the world.
“Health professionals have a duty to protect the health of the public so it’s fantastic that the NHS is leading by example by taking action to end its contribution to this climate and health emergency. The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change fully supports this campaign.”
Air pollution, a driver of climate change and intrinsically linked issue, will also be addressed by the campaign. In our own paper on air pollution3, in which we present our recommendations for how the government should address the crisis, we used a 2018 Public Health England tool designed to estimate its related healthcare costs4. Without action to reduce harmful emissions, by 2035, it is estimated that PM2.5 and NO2 pollution alone could result in treatment costs for strokes, child asthma, coronary heart disease and lung cancer of £5.3 billion. If diseases with a weaker association with air pollution – such as diabetes – are taken into account, this could rise to over £18 billion.
A recent study by Kings College London, which considered variation in the local impact of air pollution in across nine English cities found that “high-pollution days’ were responsible for an additional 673 hospital admissions for cardiac arrest, stroke and asthma5. Climate change also brings new challenges, e.g. through the increased geographical range of infectious and vector-borne diseases such as lyme disease and encephalitis6.
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said:
“While the NHS is already a world leader in sustainability, as the biggest employer in this country comprising nearly a tenth of the UK economy, we’re both part of the problem and part of the solution.
“That’s why today we are mobilising our 1.3 million staff to take action for a greener NHS, and it’s why we’ll be working with the world’s leading experts to help set a practical, evidence-based and ambitious date for the NHS to reach net zero.”
The net-zero expert panel will consider changes that the NHS can make to its own practice, in its supply chain, and through wider partnerships, and will set an “evidence-based and ambitious date for the NHS to reach net zero” – intended to be before the UK Government’s 2050 committment.
The panel will develop its plans by drawing on the success of bodies such as the Newcastle Upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust (the first to declare a ‘climate emergency’) and Great Ormond Street Hospital, who have reduced their plastic glove use by 3.7 million and saved £90,000 through their ‘Gloves off’ campaign, as well as existing commitments in the NHS’s Long Term Plan.
In this, the NHS has already pledged to improve the way it uses technology to remove the need for 30 million outpatient appointments – sparing thousands of unnecessary trips to and from hospital. Changes to medical devices, consumables and pharmaceutical supply, will also be considered.
A call for evidence
The NHS is also calling on “members of staff from every field of healthcare” for case studies, data, ideas and research to help to identify new opportunities for greening the NHS. UKHACC will be contributing on behalf of its members through Richard Smith, our Chair and net-zero panel member, but you can find out more about the campaign and submit your own ideas online now.
- Health Care Without Harm, 2019. Health Care’s Climate Footprint: How the Health Sector Contributes to the Global Climate Crisis and Opportunities for Action.
- UKHACC, 2019. Moving beyond the air quality crisis.
- Public Health England, 2018. Guidance – Air pollution: a tool to estimate healthcare costs.
- Kings College London, 2019. Personalising The Health Impacts of Air Pollution.
- Watts et al., 2019. The 2019 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate. The Lancet, 394(10211).