Arup encourages NHS to cut CO2 emissions

02 October 2019 4 min. read
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A new study has suggested that the NHS creates more than 5% of the UK’s annual CO2 emissions. On a global level, healthcare generates so much CO2 that if it were a country, it would be the world’s fifth biggest polluter.

This summer, more than 1,000 doctors signed an open letter calling for widespread nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of the environmental crisis. At the same time, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which represents all major health bodies and 650,000 healthcare professionals in the UK, has recognised the climate crisis. In order to avert disaster, however, it is increasingly clear that change is needed in the healthcare sector itself.

Data from the Carbon Trust estimates that the UK’s healthcare sector alone spends more than £400 million per year on energy. While hospitals are understandably high consumption buildings, one way or another, a significant proportion of this is actually wasted, meaning that money is being wasted too. On a global basis, this presents the healthcare industry with the challenge of reducing spending as well as its carbon footprint.

Now, new research published last week by non-government organisation Health Care Without Harm, which aims to reduce the environmental footprint of health worldwide, and consultancy firm Arup, has further illustrated the need for change in the health arena. According to the calculations of the report, if healthcare were a country it would be the fifth largest emitter on the planet, creating an astonishing 4.4% of the world’s net C02 emissions.

Arup encourages NHS to cut CO2 emissions

However, in the case of the UK, Arup and Health Without Harm actually found that the situation was worse. While the NHS started measuring emissions in 2007, and was one of the first national health systems to produce a carbon reduction strategy 10 years ago, it is calculated to be responsible for 5.4% of the UK’s total carbon emissions, equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of 11 coal-fired power stations.

Kristian Steele, an Associate at Arup and one of the HCWH report’s authors, stated, “As we continue to work to deliver high standards of quality healthcare, we must also address the environmental burden associated with this. The sector must strive to do no harm by working to cut its carbon emissions.”

A growing number of NHS trusts are taking action, however. Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Greater Manchester – a partnership that represents all health and social care bodies in the region and around 100,000 workers – have both declared a “climate emergency” in recent months. Meanwhile, trusts up and down the country are introducing energy-saving measures to reduce car journeys such as lift-share schemes for staff, free shuttle buses between sites, and cycle-to-work schemes, as well as building staff accommodations within walking distance of work.

As noted by the Guardian, Sussex Community NHS foundation trust has reduced its emissions by 37%, following a “care without carbon” drive throughout its organisation. It developed an internal network to encourage departments to re-use furniture and unwanted office products, opened a travel bureau in 2013 to encourage public transport and cycling and has introduced a car lease scheme for staff with a cap on car emissions.

At the same time, while Arup and Health Without Harm’s report notes that emissions are not much lower than those for both aviation and agriculture, forestry and land use in the UK (each 6.5% according to Committee on Climate Change figures), it is arguable that this is only going to improve in comparison. Healthcare is not a growth industry – especially not when it is run by the state – and as such it does not need to expand to chase profitability. While the NHS might work to rein in its emissions, then, this is unlikely to genuinely combat climate change in the way reducing plans to expand airports might, for example.