climate change

The world’s largest public health service sets ambitious net-zero target

Photo credit: NHS.

By Anders Lorenzen

The world is still in the middle of a pandemic that is putting pressure on national health systems. 

But, nevertheless, the world’s largest public health system, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), have announced they’re targeting 2040 for when the whole organisation should reach net-zero emissions.

The NHS says that this new commitment comes with growing evidence of the health impacts of climate change as well as of air pollution. And thousands of lost lives and hospitalisations could be prevented across the country.

The NHS also says that the extreme weather that comes as a result of the planet heating up, will increase the risks of infectious diseases spreading faster. And just last summer heat waves alone killed over 900 people in the UK. And nearly 18 million patients with respiratory illnesses had to visit doctor surgeries as a result of the increased air pollution, which exceeded the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) limit.

In addition to this, scientists believe that a third of new asthma cases could be avoided by cutting emissions, while the terrifying Lyme Disease and Encephalitis are among conditions expected to become more common as temperatures rise.

The strategy

The net-zero plan sets two targets.  

  1. First, the NHS Carbon Footprint, emissions directly caused by the organisation should reach net-zero by 2040, and an ambition to reduce emissions by 80% by 2028-2032. 
  2. Secondly, the carbon footprint caused in their supply chain, which NHS are calling NHS Carbon Footprint Plus, and which they’re aiming to reach net-zero by 2045 and with an ambition to reach 80% reduction by 2036-2039.

The road to net zero

The report behind the strategy was undertaken by the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel in January, led by Dr Nick Watts. Dr Watts is the Executive Director of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. The panel was advised by public health and climate experts, and their findings and report were endorsed by the NHS board last week.

The report detailed how the health service had already cut their carbon footprint by 62%, based on the 1990 baseline, and a cut by 26% when indirect factors are included.

To reach the new targets, several initiatives will be looked at by Dr Watts and his colleagues. That will include finding new ways of delivering care at/or closer to home, greening the NHS fleet by working towards road-testing a zero-emissions emergency ambulance by 2022.  

They will be reducing waste of consumable products and be switching to low-carbon alternatives where and when possible. They intend to make sure that new hospitals and buildings are built to a net-zero emissions target, and energy conservation is included in staff training and education programmes.

Positive reactions 

The chief executive of the NHS, Sir Simon Stevens, said about the strategy: “2020 has been dominated by Covid-19 and is the most pressing health emergency facing us. But undoubtedly climate change poses the most profound long-term threat to the health of the nation”. He further explained that much progress had been made already, but that there is room for improvements: “The NHS has already made significant progress decarbonising our care, but as the largest employer in Britain, responsible for around 4% of the nation’s carbon emissions if this country is to succeed in its overarching climate goals the NHS has to be a major part of the solution.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, who has become a household name during the pandemic offered praise to the NHS: “Cutting carbon emissions is essential to protect health everywhere in the world. I welcome the leadership of the largest single health system in the world in committing to be carbon neutral in its own operations by 2040 and to drive emissions reductions in its suppliers and partners. Health is leading the way to a greener, safer planet.”

Kate Boycott, the CEO of the Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, hailed it as a significant report: “This landmark report represents real progress and an ambitious commitment from the NHS to reduce its carbon footprint. Climate change poses a huge threat to lung health …. dangerous levels of pollution and extremes in hot and cold weather can be deadly for people with lung conditions causing symptoms to flare up and putting lives at risk.”.

And Isabella O’ Dowd, Climate Change Specialist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), urged others to follow the lead of the NHS: “It is vital that other organisations follow the lead of the NHS and take the scale of the climate crisis seriously. By investing in the net zero transition, the UK can unlock £90 billion a year in benefits, including improved health linked to better air quality and living condition.,” 

Unanswered questions

As climate advocates are celebrating the ambitious lead by the NHS, it is still unclear how the organisation is planning to reach net zero. It is also unclear how the huge organisation will make sure their existing fleet and, perhaps more important, their existing buildings (many of which are hugely inefficient), will be brought up to be net zero. 

The biggest employer in the UK has taken on a huge task to tackle the climate crisis. This would necessarily also create a huge number of jobs in the clean energy and tech sector.   At a time where many are losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis, this could open up many new jobs and create a silver lining in a dark period for many people. 

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