Health and Healthcare Systems

Protecting the planet and its people: healthcare's climate action roadmap

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Healthcare's carbon footprint is contributing to patients' ill health. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

Gonzalo Muñoz
Co-Founder, TriCiclos
Josh Karliner
International Director for Program and Strategy, Health Care Without Harm
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SDG 13: Climate Action

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  • The healthcare sector contributes more than 4.4% of net global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization, outlines actions to reduce the sector’s global emissions and provide healthcare recommendations.
  • Commitment is needed from healthcare institutions and governments around the world.

For more than a year, the world’s doctors, nurses, hospitals and health systems have been on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19. Many have served heroically as first responders, care givers, truth tellers and anchors of resilience in communities beset by the pandemic.

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A growing number of these leaders are now recognizing and speaking out about another major health crisis that looms on the horizon. The growing climate emergency threatens to make the COVID-19 pandemic pale by comparison – impacting the health and well-being of nearly everyone across the globe for generations to come.

Ironically, healthcare, whose mission it is to heal, is a major contributor to this crisis that is making the planet and the people who inhabit it sick. Healthcare contributes more than 4.4% of net global greenhouse gas emissions, making the sector (if it were a country) the fifth largest climate polluter on the planet.

Image: Health Care Without Harm.

Responding to this paradox, and despite the pressures of the pandemic, hospitals and health systems around the world are increasingly recognizing that the healthcare must step up and do its part to protect people’s health from climate change, and that the time for action is now.

Hospitals and health systems committed to net-zero

In the vanguard of the healthcare response are nearly 40 institutions collectively representing more than 3,000 healthcare facilities in 17 countries, who have just joined the UNFCCC’s Race to Zero. These hospitals and health systems have made public commitments to halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net-zero no later than 2050.

This first wave of Race to Zero healthcare institutions spans six continents and represents diverse organizations including individual hospitals, private health systems, and provincial health departments from both developed and developing countries. They are showing that you can deliver care and take on climate change at the same time. They are articulating a vision of healthy people on a healthy planet.

Hospitals and health systems have made public commitments to halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net-zero no later than 2050.

Gonzalo Muñoz and Josh Karliner.

They join other Race to Zero members already in the campaign totaling over 4,000, including regions, cities, companies, universities, and investors, making up over 15% of the global economy. The UN Race to Zero initiative is the largest ever alliance outside of national governments committed to reducing climate pollution.

The Race to Zero healthcare cohort is also part of a broader movement led by the NGO and UNFCCC Race to Zero partner, Health Care Without Harm, of thousands more hospitals working for healthcare climate action. Leadership from these non-state actors is critical to accelerating the transition to a healthier, cleaner, and more resilient zero-carbon economy.

Government action is needed

Leadership from national governments is also essential. The UNFCCC Climate Champions, Health Care Without Harm and the World Health Organization are also working together with the UK government, which will host COP26 in Glasgow in November, to encourage national governments’ health systems to make similar commitments to both decarbonization and resilience.

Our aim at the Glasgow climate conference, is to have a leading cohort of health ministries committed to healthcare climate action together with a growing movement of hospitals and health systems doing the same via Race to Zero. Together they can begin to put the healthcare sector on a trajectory to align with the ambition of the Paris Agreement of keeping global temperature increase at or below 1.5 degrees.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

The pandemic has provided us with a harrowing understanding of what a multidimensional crisis on a planetary scale looks like. It has shed a harsh light on the profound inequalities in health and healthcare access within and between countries. COVID-19 has also highlighted the imperative to strengthen and transform our health systems to become more equitable, to be prepared for and to help prevent both future pandemics as well as the greatest global health threat of the 21st century, climate change.

The hospitals and health systems joining Race to Zero are showing it can be done. It is now imperative that the health sector seize this moment and provide the climate leadership the world so desperately needs.

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