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Healthcare Sector Leads the Way to Net Zero Carbon Economy

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A new joint commentary by EASAC and FEAM, representing European Academies of Science and Medicine, emphasises the responsibility of the healthcare sector to reduce its own GHG emissions, and work with other sectors to accelerate decarbonisation of the wider economy.

The growing and potentially disastrous effects of climate change on mental and physical health – including increased exposure to extreme heat, floods and droughts; the effect of declining crop yields on nutrition, increasing incidence of vector-borne diseases such as dengue and those indirect effects mediated through socioeconomic systems such as increasing poverty and displacement – have come more into focus in recent years. They imply significantly increasing and unforeseen challenges for our health care.

Ironically, the healthcare sector itself is responsible for 5% of European greenhouse gas emissions and thus contributes to an increasingly unhealthy future, unless it takes action quickly. ‘With healing as its mission, the healthcare sector has good reasons to become a leader in climate solutions. In some countries, we already see pioneering initiatives by the health sector to cut its carbon footprint,” explains Professor Volker ter Meulen, chair of EASAC’s Biosciences Programme.

The commentary builds on further analysis by the Academies since publication of the EASAC report: ‘The imperative of climate action to protect human health in Europe’ in June 2019. While the initial report focused on health impacts from climate change, the scientists now emphasise the responsibility of the health sector to lead by example, by reducing its own GHG emissions, and work with other sectors to accelerate decarbonisation of the wider economy.

Local and near-term benefits to health

‘The best part is that decarbonising the health sector will not only help the climate,’ explains Robin Fears, Director of EASAC’s Biosciences Programme. ‘We see significant opportunities from green procurement, greener spaces and better building structures, through to healthier patient diets based on sustainably grown food, and digital health and other innovative models of patient care. These mitigation measures within health care systems can encourage more efficient use of resources and bring local and near-term benefits to health.’

‘Tackling climate change should be seen as integral part of the sector’s mission to provide high quality patient care and to promote public health,’ adds Andrew Haines, Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. ‘This also implies shifting focus from cure to prevention, including by addressing social, environmental and economic causes of diseases. Supporting people to make healthier and more sustainable choices has the potential to reduce the need for hospital visits.’

A big opportunity for the European Union

EASAC and FEAM welcome the increasingly ambitious decarbonisation targets of the EU. However, they regret that so far, the health-care sector has rarely been included in discussions about decarbonisation at European level. They see a big opportunity for the EU to be more involved in health issues and provide recommendations as to how to promote such initiatives.

‘Ambitions of the health sector should drive and be driven by coordinated policy action at the EU level, for example building on current initiatives by the European Commission for sustainable public procurement and the pharmaceutical strategy,’ explains FEAM President Professor George Griffin.

The recently announced aspirations for the European Health Union provide further impetus for action in the health sector. They should be aligned with other policy and strategic priorities, in particular for the circular economy, bioeconomy, digital health, construction (Renovation Wave), Farm to Fork strategy, the European Green Deal, post-COVID-19 recovery, as well as with the collective international action on Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement targets.

Leadership by the health care sector can help to overcome barriers to transformative change by demonstrating the health benefits of decarbonisation across a range of sectors; including energy, food, transport, and housing. ‘There is an opportunity for the EU to drive international action: This year, COP26 presents an unparalleled opportunity for accelerating commitment to Paris Agreement targets, in which all sectors must play their part,’ concludes Griffin.

The commentary will be presented and discussed during a public event on 10 May at 2 pm CET. Register for the webinar here.

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