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Net Zero: How the UK is making an impact on sustainable healthcare

Article-Net Zero: How the UK is making an impact on sustainable healthcare

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Ambitious programmes include creating the world’s first zero-emission ambulance and the construction of 40 new ‘net zero hospitals’.

Electric drones that cut travel emissions to deliver life-saving chemotherapy drugs to patients, reusable surgical textiles for the operating room, technology that reduces pain relief emissions that are 300 times more environmentally harmful than carbon dioxide. These are just some of the innovations from the UK that are helping to tackle one of the biggest global health challenges of our generation – climate change.

Today, across the world, the net zero agenda is more important than ever. Evidence shows that our planet is getting hotter, with average temperatures now 1.2°C higher than in the pre-industrial era. The current projections are that they are on track to increase beyond the 1.5°C tipping point – by as much as 2.7°C at the end of the century.

Rising temperatures pose a growing threat directly to human health, including to our food and water security, the biodiversity of the planet’s diverse species, and entire ecosystems. To prevent these catastrophic health impacts, the world must limit temperature rise to 1.5°C – by halving our CO2 by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.

Human health and well-being are inextricably linked to the health of the planet – which is why it has been identified as the most urgent global health threat of the century. Higher temperatures, extreme weather such as flooding, heatwaves and drought – which are expected to increase in frequency over the coming years – and rising sea levels, pose a threat to many of the social determinants for good health.

Our health systems therefore also need to adapt to this change, to consider their environmental impact and the impact on populations’ health. How do we minimise health systems’ environmental impact? How do we build clinical transformation to adapt? How do we bring key stakeholders and communities together towards this?

In 2020, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) became the world’s first health service to commit to reaching net zero – 2040 for the emissions it controls and 2045 for those it can influence – spurred on by factors such as air pollution accounting for one in 20 deaths with harmful emissions causing increased cases of asthma, heart disease and lung cancer.

Dr. Linda Magee, OBE.jpg

This ambition is being driven by Greener NHS, the programme to deliver a net zero NHS, local UK hospitals and authorities, life science innovators and adopters of greener practices. As an example, 56 NHS Trusts are planning to install on-site solar technology within the next three years. It also includes several ambitious programmes — creating the world’s first zero-emission ambulance, the construction of 40 new ‘net zero hospitals’, and implementing a net zero horizon scanning function to identify future pipeline innovations.

Taking a whole system approach is crucial. The NHS is one of the largest single emitters of carbon dioxide in the UK. Its operations account for 5.4 per cent of the UK’s total carbon emissions and 40 per cent of all public sector emissions. The NHS estate is responsible for 36 per cent of public sector power consumption and is therefore an integral part of the health system’s efforts to become more sustainable.

The UK’s Delivering a Net Zero NHS plan sets out the critical role estates and facilities services will have in achieving the NHS’ overall net zero carbon ambitions – and reaching everything from supply chain contracts, to waste management, from remote asset control to patient travel. The NHS has already built its first net zero hospital and net zero health centre. NHS Property Services are using local facilities for social prescribing and green spaces.

With scores of other countries now committed to low-carbon sustainable health systems, the NHS is working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to promote and facilitate this global ambition. The NHS and the UK Government (Office of Life Science) are also working with the life sciences industry along with their supply chain to reduce the carbon footprint of the wider health ecosystem.

At the World Hospital Congress 2022, the International Hospital Federation (IHF) stated: “Hospitals and healthcare organisations hold a unique responsibility to provide safe quality care that protects and enhances the health potential of their communities. Climate change has a direct and increasingly damaging impact on both the health of communities and the delivery of healthcare”.

Hospital and health system leaders therefore need to embrace every opportunity to decarbonise and build climate resilience into their decisions, strategic and operational plans. This call to action speaks directly to all hospitals and healthcare organisations to take concrete steps in line with the Paris Agreement, with the aim to limit global warming to well below 2°C.

The UK is leading the way on tackling climate change and improving sustainability – becoming the first major economy to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. And the NHS is leading the way for healthcare in England.

Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have also made commitments to promote a climate-friendly economy. The UAE, Oman and Israel have committed to being net zero by 2050, while Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have announced a net zero target for 2060. Healthcare is a huge and irrefutable part of that challenge.

Strengthening our collective net zero capabilities continues to be a key UK priority – and is the best chance we have to create a safer, healthier and greener world.

Launch of the UK’s net zero offer

At this year’s Arab Health, the Department for International Trade (DIT) is proud to be launching the UK’s Net Zero Offer in healthcare that will showcase some of the high-impact innovation and knowledge being generated by a range of NHS organisations and private UK companies, while articulating their exportable strengths. We want to share these innovations internationally to help our partners enhance resilience, address gaps, and most importantly to take steps towards having net zero health systems.

In collaboration with industry and country experts, our seminar on the February 1 will provide further insights into the UK’s strengths in this area. Highlighting the UAE and wider global perspectives in net zero healthcare, the session will provide an excellent opportunity to see where we can work together, take bold and immediate action on climate change, and build health systems that are fit for the future.

References available on request.

Dr. Linda Magee OBE, is the Health Innovation and NHS Specialist Science & Technology (S&T) Directorate, Department for International Trade.


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

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