Climate Change: an Opportunity for Action

Climate change is damaging human health today and will have a greater impact in the future. The Lancet has called it the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

Direct climate impacts, such as the spread of vector borne disease, increased heat, drought, severe storms and flooding, as well as the mass migration of climate refugees have health consequences that will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and marginalized populations and increase in intensity over time.

At the same time, the main driver of climate change—fossil fuel combustion—is causing major health problems now, contributing to air pollution that kills more than six million people a year, roughly twice as many people as HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB combined.

Health care contributes to climate change

While vastly differing in scale, each nation’s health sector releases greenhouse gases while delivering care and procuring products and technologies from a carbon-intensive supply chain. Health care contributes to carbon emissions through energy consumption, transport, and products manufactured, used, and disposed of.

While few countries have undertaken healthcare carbon footprint measurements, and further study is necessary to more comprehensively quantify healthcare’s contribution to climate change, a World Bank report makes a rough, first-ever estimate of health care’s global emissions. It conservatively finds that health care generates 5% of world-wide greenhouse gas emissions, amounting to 2.6 billion metric tons of CO2e in 2011.


Health Care Climate Action

The worst effects of climate change can be prevented, and such prevention presents an opportunity for health care to play a leadership role by implementing resiliency and low-carbon development strategies within the sector, while influencing others to mitigate climate change and improve population health.

Because the health sector is a major economic, political and moral force in most every society, it holds the potential to play a leadership role in addressing climate change everywhere. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy can prevent the worst impacts of climate change while simultaneously improving health outcomes and health equity.

An engaged health sector of millions of health professionals, professional associations, hospitals, health systems, health NGOs, ministries of health and international organizations can help broaden and deepen the worldwide movement to address climate change, moving the world toward a healthy, low carbon development path.