Health workers will help hit NHS climate targets

The NHS has adopted a multiyear plan to become the world’s first carbon net-zero national health system.

The commitment comes amid growing evidence of the health impacts of climate change and air pollution, and aims to save thousands of lives and hospitalisations across the country.

NHS England convened the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel in January following the launch of the Climate Assembly UK, to take and analyse evidence on how the health service can contribute to nationwide carbon reduction efforts.

Led by Dr Nick Watts, Executive Director of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, the Panel comprised public health and climate experts as well as patient and staff representatives.

Their report, endorsed by the NHS board, sets out how the health service has already cut its own carbon footprint by 62% compared to the international-standard 1990 baseline, and by 26% when indirect factors are included.

Based on the findings of the report the NHS has formally adopted two targets, set as the earliest possible credible dates for the NHS to achieve net zero emissions:

  • for the NHS Carbon Footprint (emissions under NHS direct control), net zero by 2040, with an ambition for an interim 80% reduction by 2028-2032, and;
  • for the NHS Carbon Footprint Plus, (which includes our wider supply chain), net zero by 2045, with an ambition for an interim 80% reduction by 2036-2039.

An NHS spokesman said Dr Watts and his team will engage widely to support delivery, with interventions including:

  • new ways of delivering care at or closer to home, meaning fewer patient journeys to hospitals;
  • greening the NHS fleet, including working towards road-testing a zero-emissions emergency ambulance by 2022;
  • reducing waste of consumable products and switching to low-carbon alternatives where possible;
  • making sure new hospitals and buildings are built to be net-zero emissions, and;
  • building energy conservation into staff training and education programmes.

An NHS spokesman said air pollution is linked to killer conditions like heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, and academics have linked high pollution days with hundreds of extra out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and hospital admissions for stroke and asthma.

The changing climate is leading to more frequent heatwaves and extreme weather events such as flooding, including the potential spread of infectious diseases to the UK.

The spokesman said almost 900 people were killed by last summer’s heatwaves while nearly 18 million patients go to a GP practice in an area that exceeds the World Health Organisation’s air pollution limit.

Scientists believe perhaps a third of new asthma cases might be avoided by cutting emissions, while Lyme Disease and encephalitis are among conditions expected to become more common as temperatures rise.

Dr Nick Watts, incoming NHS Chief sustainability officer, said: ‘The evidence that the climate emergency is a health emergency is overwhelming, with health professionals already needing to manage its symptoms.

‘We know that 98% of NHS staff believe the health system should be more environmentally sustainable, and even during the busiest period in NHS history, the insight, enthusiasm and commitment from those on the frontline for us to plan for the future has been exceptional.

‘The NHS’s ambition is world-leading, and the first national commitment to deliver a net zero health service.

‘It comes at a time when the UK is preparing to host the UN climate change summit next year, and demonstrates that every part of our societies need to play their part in reducing pollution and responding to climate change.’

Commenting on the report, UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said:

‘Although beating the virus is top of everyone’s list, the climate emergency hasn’t gone away. Today’s report will help the NHS move closer to hitting its net zero targets.

‘All health workers have a part to play in driving down carbon emissions, from estates and facilities staff to cleaners, caterers, administrative workers and clinicians.

‘The report also identifies the pressing need to tackle health inequalities, especially important for Black staff who are more likely to live in areas where pollution levels are high.’

Photo Credit – Pixabay


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