Investing in Climate Change

For Health Systems, Carbon Neutrality Aligns with Mission

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Healthcare experts and environmentalists are confronting a particular irony: the same systems that serve to protect and promote human health in many cases also contribute to global warming, which adversely affects human health. From heatstroke and disease communication to extreme weather and food insecurity, the health impacts of climate change are extensive.

The Carbon Footprint of Healthcare

According to the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation dedicated to improving healthcare delivery and access, the $3.3 trillion US healthcare system produces about 10% of the carbon dioxide generated in the country each year. It is also the seventh-largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world.

On a global level, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that hospitals and labs emit 4.4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions—equal to 514 coal-fired power plants. They are also responsible for more than 5 million tons of waste each year.

Where do all those emissions and waste stem from? More than half of healthcare’s carbon footprint comes from energy use. For example, a portion originates from heating and cooling the air that cycles in and out of operating rooms, according to the AAMC. With their powerful ventilators, freezers, and other technology, labs at Harvard University account for about 44% of energy use but take up just 20% of the university’s space.

Decreasing their carbon footprint fulfills part of health providers’ mission to “do no harm” by addressing the dangerous health effects of climate change.

Healthcare Systems Reduce Emissions

Recognizing the sizeable carbon footprint of healthcare, major US players including Kaiser Permanente and the Cleveland Clinic are seeking ways to reduce their emissions. For these healthcare systems, the motivation goes beyond a concern for the environment.

For one thing, decreasing their carbon footprint fulfills part of health providers’ mission to “do no harm” by mitigating the dangerous health effects of climate change. “There’s a link between climate and health—that definitely motivates us,” Dr. Ilyssa Gordon, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Office for a Healthy Environment, told the AAMC.

There is also a business case for reducing health systems’ carbon footprint. Kaiser Permanente recently became the first health system in the US to reach carbon neutral status; it claims that improving its energy use efficiency 8% over a period of seven years saved it $19.6 million a year.

Serving more than 12 million Americans, Kaiser Permanente began its program to become carbon neutral in 2016. Those efforts started with a focus on boosting energy efficiency in its buildings, installing solar power, and reaching power purchase agreements to buy considerably more renewable energy, FierceHealthcare reports. The organization also took steps such as recycling, reusing, and composting all nonhazardous waste. In addition, it bought carbon offsets to counter its estimated 800,000-ton annual carbon footprint.

Other health systems are also addressing their carbon footprints. The Cleveland Clinic is working to become carbon neutral by 2027 through steps like designing green buildings, introducing a purchasing program that pressures vendors to reduce packaging and deliver products on reusable pallets, and selecting nonhazardous alternatives to conventional products.

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