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Sustainability spotlight

Climate change: Addressing the ‘biggest global threat of the 21st century’ and its impact on healthcare

Article-Climate change: Addressing the ‘biggest global threat of the 21st century’ and its impact on healthcare

Shutterstock HCPs assisting patient
The interplay of healthcare and climate change is crucial to resolve the emission crisis.

The growing climate emergency is undoubtedly real and affecting our present. Though there is a divided consensus with many denying its existence, the climate crisis is looming large adversely impacting human health and in the upcoming times, the threat is only likely to multiply. The medical journal Lancet has called it the ‘biggest global health threat of the 21st century.’

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), ‘climate change has the capacity to produce severe consequences for human health. The health sector can play a pivotal role in helping nations across the globe adapt to these serious consequences. It can play a leadership role in mitigating climate change – that is reducing its magnitude and consequences,’

Role of stakeholders in climate change

It is the primary responsibility of the stakeholders of the healthcare sector to contribute their bit in breaking the vicious cycle of healthcare’s carbon footprint and climate change. People are falling ill or dying due to a significant shift in climate, which has led to increased dependability and use of medical care facilities for treatment. It is imperative to note that the greater the use of technology and medical equipment and resources, the more the emission of GHGs, which increases the sector’s carbon footprint and further aggravates the climate crisis.

This, in turn, would lead to an increased influx of people in need of healthcare to battle the adverse effects of climate emergency, causing the cycle to continue. According to a 2019 groundbreaking report by “Health Care without Harm”, healthcare’s climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4 per cent of global net emissions. The research report further highlights that the global healthcare climate footprint is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 514 coal-fired power plants. In terms of countries, the report reveals that the top three emitters, the US, China, and collectively the countries of the European Union, comprise more than half the world’s total healthcare climate footprint (56 per cent) and finds that while vastly different in scale, each nation’s health sector releases greenhouse gases— directly and indirectly — while delivering care and procuring products, services and technologies from a carbon-intensive supply chain.

Conscious carbon footprint reduction

Manufacturing of medical products, use, and disposal along with the consumption of massive amounts of energy for running healthcare devices, equipment, etc. as well as transport are some of the main sources that emit greenhouse gases. The only duty of healthcare is to not only treat the sick and dying from the climate emergency but also become aware of its role, understand its contribution to the Sustainable Development Goal of Climate Action, and take adequate steps/ measures to prevent and consciously work towards significantly reducing its own carbon footprint.

Though there is growing discourse around why the healthcare sector should work toward preventing and reducing its emissions, it is also crucial to understand and look at the challenges faced by the sector while en route to opting for the environment-friendly way. Financial challenges is on the top of the list since realigning existing approaches would come at an increased cost. This is likely to make it difficult for smaller clients to opt for the cash-intensive route. Hence there is a need for a strong global focus on charting out a clear roadmap — actionable timelines, framework, etc. to reduce healthcare’s net emissions and factor in large-scale investments in climate finance to enable offering subsidies so that the sector’s clientele, be it big or small can meaningfully contribute in healthcare’s climate change mitigation plans.

Digitalising healthcare to reduce emissions

While the global healthcare industry is on the brink of reducing its carbon footprint and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the sector should also be mindful of the efforts taken to combat climate change not just because of the urgent need but also of its impact on the future.

A significant step towards reducing emissions is digitalising healthcare. The COVID-19 era has already taught us to opt for digital healthcare, and unless it is an emergency, the sector could leverage and bank on this opportunity to continue providing medical care and services digitally wherever possible. This would lead to a decrease in footfall of patients in medical facilities, use of resources, and thereby reducing emissions.

One of the most crucial climate actions that the healthcare industry need is its collective alignment and commitment to the Paris Agreement (the international treaty on climate change) whose goal is ‘to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate-neutral world by mid-century.’ 

After all, adherence to the agreement would need the various stakeholders including suppliers and manufacturers to come together and work on a single mission of reducing net emissions to zero by or before 2050. However, climate action by healthcare or ‘green healthcare’ can become a reality only when various agencies and contributors of the sector understand and accept the significance of climate emergency on human health. There is a pressing need for more discussion, discourse and research to create more awareness among the stakeholders on the role of healthcare and its strong interlinkage with climate change so that they can take responsibility and work towards mitigating the greatest threat to human health in the immediate future.

This article appears in the Daily Dose 2023. Read the full issue online today.

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