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Four ways the healthcare sector can accelerate net-zero transition

The healthcare sector accounts for approximately 4-5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The healthcare sector accounts for approximately 4-5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Image: AstraZeneca/Gorodenkoff

Juliette White
Vice-President, Global Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) and Sustainability, AstraZeneca
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  • Climate change is not just an environmental crisis, it is a public health emergency.
  • The healthcare sector accounts for approximately 4-5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Everyone involved in healthcare delivery has a role in reducing its footprint.

The drought, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires of the last months have all too starkly brought home the acute human impact of the climate crisis. And these extreme weather events have also placed further pressure on the availability of conventional energy, already in crisis, further underscoring the need to accelerate the development of renewable energy sources.

Climate change is now a lived reality around the globe, and it is affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations. The climate emergency is a public health emergency.

One billion of the world’s most vulnerable children are at extreme risk from the climate crisis, as evidenced in a flagship UNICEF report. And the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 14 million people die each year from environmental health risks, with harmful emissions causing increased asthma, cancer, and heart disease, as well as premature death.

Collective action across public and private sectors is vital to address this global challenge – in my view, the largest of our time.

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Healthcare's role in tackling climate change

At the heart of the health sector is a mission to protect and save lives and improve health. Therefore we cannot ignore our collective contribution to the climate emergency, with approximately 4-5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions coming from the healthcare sector. Everyone involved in the delivery of healthcare has a role to play in reducing its footprint.

That’s why this week, I’m joining partners from across industries in New York at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings. Tackling climate change is not a competitive endeavour, and collaboration within and across sectors is key. This is particularly the case for Scope 3 emissions – those which are not produced by a company itself but part of its full value chain – and where there are significant opportunities for synergies and collaboration. I hope that through the sessions the Forum is convening, we can progress innovative ideas and forge connections to accelerate the transition to net zero.

Accelerating healthcare's net-zero transition

Guided by our flagship Ambition Zero Carbon programme, AstraZeneca is on a path to achieving net-zero by 2045. Our net-zero targets, which have been verified by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), will see us reduce GHG emissions from our global operations (Scope 1 and 2) by 98% by 2026 and lower absolute Scope 3 GHG emissions by 50% by 2030. In addition, by 2030, we have committed to being carbon negative for all residual emissions.

We’ve learned some lessons along the way, and I hope that sharing these may inspire others.

1. The path to net-zero must be led by science

As a science-based company, we are empowered by data and have aligned our climate strategy with rigorous, independent scientific standards. It’s important for us to hold ourselves accountable and for others to be able to do the same.

2. Partnering with peers on the net-zero transition works

At COP26, AstraZeneca joined efforts with nine other life sciences companies and Schneider Electric to launch ‘Energize’, a novel collaboration to support our suppliers to access renewable energy at scale, including SMEs that may otherwise face capacity constraints. The project is now up and running in the US and Europe, engaging with hundreds of suppliers.

In addition to the Energize programme, through our North American Clean Heat programme, which is spread across a number of sites, we are exploring options to support the decarbonization of fossil gas consumption across our North American operations. To deliver on our Scope 1-2 targets, we are also investigating solutions for clean heat across our diverse global site network, with lower demand levels than our UK and US operations.

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How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

3. Public-private partnerships can be a powerful engine for driving innovation and action

AstraZeneca CEO, Pascal Soriot, champions the Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI) Health Systems Taskforce. This task force brings together global health leaders from industry, the WHO, UNICEF and academia and is a “Coalition of the Willing” whose aim is to accelerate the delivery of net-zero health systems. Its members have joined forces to go above and beyond individual climate targets to drive sustainable action across the sector at large.

Another prime example of global collaboration is the Partnership for Health System Sustainability and Resilience (PHSSR), aimed at ensuring health systems can withstand future crises. Led by AstraZeneca, the Forum, the London School of Economics, Royal Philips, KPMG, Apollo Hospitals, and others, PHSSR is now active in over 20 countries and, crucially, is integrating an environmental dimension into its research.

4. Nature-based solutions must not be overlooked

We must not decarbonize at the expense of the world around us, but should instead help bring human, societal and planetary health into better alignment and equilibrium. I’m proud of our AZ Forest initiative, which is supporting global reforestation efforts with 50 million trees to be planted by the end of 2025, supporting the Forum’s 1t.org broader initiative to conserve, restore and grow one trillion trees by 2030. AZ Forest aims to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change and contribute positively to communities, local economies, and nature by strengthening ecological and community resilience. There are other excellent initiatives underway, as the 1t.org platform showcases, and we can all learn more and do better by sharing information on our approaches.

Last year’s COP26 in Glasgow marked the first time that health was on the formal climate change conference programme. Looking forward to COP27, it is imperative that we continue to drive common action on this interconnected agenda, for the health of current and future generations.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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