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Countries Pledge to Reduce the Healthcare Industry’s Climate Problem

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Key Takeaways

  • More than 50 countries have pledged to improve or develop climate-resilient, sustainable low-carbon healthcare systems.
  • Five percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the global healthcare industry, but in the United States, it is 8.5%.
  • Healthcare companies like Kaiser Permanente and others have already started reducing their carbon footprint.

It started with a commitment from 40 countries. But now, the governments of 50 countries have signed on to reduce the impact of their healthcare systems on the climate.

This pledge was part of the COP26 Health Program and the United Nations Climate Change Summit that was held in Scotland from October 31 through November 12. The countries, ranging from the United States to the Maldives, are promising to increase or develop climate-resilient, low-carbon healthcare systems that decrease their impact on global warming. The goal is to achieve what is called “net zero” emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

According to the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, a website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate resilience is the ability to prevent, withstand, respond to, and recover from a climate or weather event.    

While most attention may be on the fossil fuel and transportation industries, the healthcare industry is a surprisingly large source of greenhouse gases and other contributors to climate change, Josh Karliner, national director for programming strategy for Healthcare Without Harm, told Verywell.

“Most people don't realize this contributes to almost 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “In the United States, it’s 8.5% of emissions. If healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth largest polluter on the planet."

Josh Karliner, Healthcare Without Harm, National Director for Programming Strategy

If healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth largest polluter on the planet.

— Josh Karliner, Healthcare Without Harm, National Director for Programming Strategy

What Health Care's Footprint Looks Like

According to Karliner, the healthcare industry’s carbon footprint is made up of a number of different components, from the energy it consumes to the transportation it necessitates. The construction and materials to make such massive hospitals range in their degrees of efficiency. He says pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and the whole supply chain require energy to continuously function, and also generate a lot of waste.

“Ironically, health care becomes a contributor to a problem that’s harming the health of people and the planet,” he said.

Is a Lower Impact Possible?

Reducing the carbon footprint of healthcare does not mean sacrificing quality.

“There are a lot of ways that healthcare can reduce its footprint without compromising the quality of caregiving to patients and, sometimes, in fact, improving the quality of care and improving the health of the environment in and around the hospital,” Karliner said.

Healthcare Without Harm works toward helping the world healthcare systems reduce their environmental impact. It has programs for building green facilities and dealing with medical waste and toxic materials. In 2014, it established the Health Care Climate Council, which is a coalition of healthcare companies committed to working to reduce the climate impact of the industry. 

Some U.S. healthcare companies have already started to reduce their impact on the environment. Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest healthcare providers in the country, became carbon neutral in 2020, which means that it offset the greenhouse gases it emits and by buying energy from clean sources. CommonSpirit Health announced that it plans to reduce its emissions by half by 2030 and reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. 

“They are showing that it can be done and that it is economically viable, that it’s totally possible to provide world-class healthcare and at the same time reduce the carbon footprint and get to zero emissions,” Karliner said.

What This Means For You

Hospitals and healthcare systems are major contributors to pollution. But as countries pledge to get this under control, know that energy-reducing strategies will not affect the level of care.

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  1. U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit. Meet the challenges of a changing climate.