Research scientists develop roadmap for climate-friendly healthcare

As the world grapples with the far-reaching consequences of climate change, an unlikely contributor to greenhouse gas emissions emerges: the healthcare sector. A recent study [1] delves into the intricate web connecting healthcare systems and climate change, shedding light on the urgent need for transformative action to mitigate the sector’s environmental footprint.

Authored by a team of esteemed researchers from various academic institutions worldwide, including Manchester Metropolitan University, Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, and Deakin University, the study highlights the startling reality that if the global healthcare sector were a country, it would rank as the fifth-largest carbon emitter. Moreover, it is responsible for a staggering 4.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Paradoxically, healthcare systems, designed to safeguard human health, are themselves contributing to environmental degradation, exacerbating the very issues they aim to mitigate.

Healthcare supply chain challenge

The study identifies three key scopes through which healthcare systems contribute to climate change. Direct emissions (Scope 1) account for 17% of the sector’s global footprint and stem from fossil fuel usage within healthcare facilities and fleets. Indirect emissions (Scope 2), comprising 12% of the sector’s footprint, result from purchased electricity. However, it’s the emissions from the broader healthcare supply chain and operations (Scope 3) that pose the most significant challenge, constituting a whopping 71% of the sector’s overall emissions.

To address this pressing issue, the study proposes a comprehensive roadmap towards decarbonization and sustainable practices in healthcare. It advocates for a paradigm shift towards renewable energy sources, energy-efficient infrastructure, and sustainable procurement models. One key recommendation is for healthcare facilities to transition to 100% renewable energy, leveraging wind, solar, and geothermal sources. Additionally, investments in energy-efficient building designs, zero-emission transport fleets, and sustainably sourced food are highlighted as crucial steps towards reducing the sector’s carbon footprint.

Furthermore, the study emphasizes the importance of circular economy principles in waste management within healthcare systems. By redesigning waste disposal processes and promoting recycling and reuse of medical equipment, significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved. Moreover, the adoption of digital healthcare solutions, such as telemedicine, can streamline patient care, minimize travel-related emissions, and enhance healthcare system efficiency.

However, the transition to climate-friendly healthcare is not without its challenges, particularly in developing countries.

Limited financial resources, outdated infrastructure, and technological gaps pose significant barriers to implementing sustainable practices. Effective policy frameworks, capacity building initiatives, and international collaboration are identified as essential components in overcoming these obstacles and fostering climate-resilient healthcare systems worldwide. In conclusion, the study underscores the critical role of the healthcare sector in addressing the dual challenges of climate change and public health. By embracing sustainable practices, investing in renewable energy, and reimagining healthcare delivery models, the sector can lead the way towards a greener, healthier future. However, achieving this vision will require concerted efforts from policymakers, healthcare providers, and stakeholders at all levels. Only through collective action can we build a climate-friendly healthcare system that not only protects human health but also preserves the planet for future generations.

1. Filho W.L., Luetz J.M., Thanekar U.D. et al. Climate‑friendly healthcare: reducing the impacts of the healthcare sector on the world’s climate. Sustainability Science. Published online, March 29, 2024.