Invest in Healthcare to Achieve Net Zero: Experts

Experts are discussing how the healthcare sector can be delivered in an environmental-friendly manner during SEADS 2023 in Bali.

PHNOM PENH – Experts have urged action from medical professionals and political will to reduce the greenhouse emission in the healthcare system as it contributes to extreme weather, leading to infectious diseases. 

The climate footprint in the healthcare sector equates to 4.4 percent of global carbon emissions, said Josh Karliner, director of global partnerships at Health Care Without Harm. 

From 2014-2019, healthcare’s footprint grew to over 5 percent of global net emissions.

The healthcare climate footprint is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 514 coal-fired power plants, making it the fifth-largest emitter if the sector was a country, he said.

Eighty-four percent of emissions are from burning fossil fuels. The healthcare supply chain contributes 71 percent of the health sector’s emissions while 17 percent directly comes from healthcare facilities and 12 percent of the emissions are from purchased electricity.

“There is a commitment to make in the healthcare sector for low carbonization,” Karliner said during the ADB Southeast Asia Development Symposium (SEADS) 2023 on Mar. 30 on the Indonesian island of Bali. 

“All healthcare systems must act to get closer to net zero by 2050.”

Seventy-four nations pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. In the run-up to COP26, over 600 businesses established net-zero emission goals.

Karliner said emissions would triple by 2050 as the sector grows. The way healthcare is delivered is crucial to ensuring the future with climate resilience and cost-efficient healthcare infrastructure.

Action can be taken

John Thwaites, chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and Climate works Centre, said every nation has plans to achieve net zero in their health systems. Hence, they need to commit to working out the reduction of emissions.

Examples were that hospitals can replace gas with green energy. People can travel to medical appointments on foot rather than by driving cars or taking buses.

Srinath Reddy, an honorary distinguished professor at the Public Health Foundation of India, said medical facilities should reuse, repair, and recycle non-toxic products while engaging relevant individuals in the commitment.

“We need to act in a present and engage the future, with a healthcare environment, medical students, and medical administration to ensure an efficient healthcare system to protect the climate,” he said, suggesting the adopting of green norms and healthcare financing.

Eugenie Kayak, Enterprise Professor in Sustainable Healthcare, Melbourne Medical School of the University of Melbourne, said health professionals are crucial to the road to net zero and so are the political voices.

Choices are given to the professionals to ensure climate-resilient healthcare systems, she said.

“The health sector purchasing energy, food, equipment, and use of transport can influence other sectors,” said Kayak. “We have a proud history and can encourage the government to develop a roadmap for that.”

Josh Karliner highlighted seven high-impact actions to achieve greenhouse gas reduction over 36 years.

These include the use of renewable electricity, building and infrastructure investment, sustainable transportation, healthily grown food provision, low-carbon pharmaceutical production, sustainable healthcare waste management, and the establishment of health system effectiveness.

Challenges of health sector decarbonization

Josh Karliner said insufficient finance, low human capability, inadequate research and a lack of leadership and political will posed challenges to tackling healthcare emissions.

Ayako Inagaki, director of the Human and Social Development Division, Southeast Asia Department, ADB, acknowledged that ADB was not doing enough to finance and set out action for the sector’s emission reduction.

She said through discussions with the developing countries, there is a commitment and awareness of the role of net zero solution. But more clarity and guidance from governments were crucial.

It is important to do how countries can invest more in health infrastructure to move forward to net zero. Advocacy and capacity building is important, said Inagaki.

“We really have to take action and reformation as a community here,” she said. “We are committed to supporting initiatives that achieve climate resilience.”

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