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 product manufacture, use, and disposal.
The Health care’s global climate footprint report, published in September 2019 by Health Care Without Harm in collaboration with Arup, shows that health care’s climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4% of global net emissions, equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 514 coal-fired power plants.
Results show that the top ten health care emitters make up 75% of the global health care climate footprint. Globally, emissions emanating directly from health care facilities and health care owned vehicles (Scope 1) make up 17% of the sector’s worldwide footprint, indirect emissions from purchased energy sources such as electricity, steam, cooling, and heating (Scope 2) comprise another 12%, and the remaining 71% is primarily derived from the health care supply chain (Scope 3) through the production, transport, and disposal of goods and services, such as pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, food and agricultural products, medical devices, hospital equipment, and instruments.
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.