Health and Healthcare Systems

6 ways the pharmaceutical industry can reduce its climate impact

Healthcare is responsible for 4.4% of global emissions, more per dollar of revenue than the automotive sector. Pharmaceutical companies need a better strategy

Healthcare is responsible for 4.4% of global emissions, more per dollar of revenue than the automotive sector. Pharmaceutical companies need a better strategy Image: Christian Jepsen / EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid

Jayasree K. Iyer
CEO, Access to Medicine Foundation
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  • Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity, projected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year.
  • Healthcare is responsible for 4.4% of global emissions, more per dollar of revenue than the automotive sector.
  • To cut emissions and combat health impacts, pharmaceutical companies need to expand access to healthcare globally.

Health and climate are inextricably linked, from the impact of extreme weather on food security to air pollution due to wildfires or the growing spread of infectious diseases. Wherever we look, a warming world is inflicting an increasing physical, mental and economic burden on individuals and communities, leaving destroyed lives and livelihoods in its wake. According to the World Health Organization, climate change is now the biggest health threat facing humanity and it is projected to cause an additional 250,000 deaths every year between 2030 and 2050 from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

Climate change clearly impacts health and health systems, and yet the pharmaceutical industry itself has been fuelling the climate crisis. While it may not get as much attention as some industries, the sector is responsible for 4.4% of global emissions and its CO2 footprint is forecast to triple by 2050 if left unchecked. In 2019, the pharmaceutical industry produced 48.55 tonnes of CO2 equivalent for every $1m it generated – or 55% more than the automotive industry, which emitted 31.4 tonnes per $1m generated in the same year.

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Given this link between climate and health, the pharmaceutical industry has a unique responsibility to act, not only to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through net-zero strategies but to combat the adverse health consequences of the climate emergency. To do this effectively, companies need to get ahead of the curve, both in terms of medicines they are developing and the access they are providing to those people on the frontline of the climate crisis, who overwhelmingly live in resource-poor settings.

How the pharmaceutical industry can combat climate change

Here are six ways pharmaceutical companies can combat climate effects on health:

1. Invest in research and development to fight emerging infectious diseases that spread faster and further in a warming world.

Companies should invest far more in emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), such as the mosquito-borne fevers dengue, zika and chikungunya, as well as water-borne diseases like cholera and shigella. When it comes to the threat posed by EIDs, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for the world. But COVID-19 is not a unique threat. There are many diseases that could seed the next epidemic or pandemic and many are passed from animals to humans in a process that can be accelerated by climate change and human intrusion into natural habitats.

Despite the pharmaceutical industry’s considerable efforts in fighting COVID-19, it is a concern that the 2022 Access to Medicine Index still shows little progress in companies’ overall research and development efforts against EIDs. In fact, only five companies – Bayer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck KGaA, Merck & Co and Takeda – engage in EID research projects other than for COVID-19, and they boast just 12 projects between them, down from 15 projects four years ago. Such an empty pipeline for so many dangerous pathogens inevitably increases the risk that the world will be ill-prepared for future global outbreaks.

Pharmaceutical companies need to engage in more innovative research and development to promote better use of products in climate-affected settings.
Pharmaceutical companies need to engage in more innovative research and development to promote better use of products in climate-affected settings. Image: Health Care Without Harm

2. Invest in research and development to ensure better use of medicines, including heat-stable products for hot countries and innovations that simplify packaging and transportation.

Companies need to engage in more innovative research and development to promote better use of products in climate-affected settings. Given the lack of cold-chain supply networks in many lower-income countries, there is an urgent requirement for more heat-stable medications to ensure medicines reach remote locations without deteriorating. The leading cause of maternal mortality, post-partum haemorrhage, is largely preventable with oxytocin administration. A heat-stable alternative product that is easily and quickly administered is being developed, and has the potential to save thousands of lives.

Pharmaceutical companies can also look at innovations in product packaging that are more sustainable for the planet while also ensuring consumer protection against contamination and other risks.

3. Expand access to healthcare products globally, so people hardest hit by health and climate get equitable access.

More generally, companies need to ensure affordable access to essential medicines – whether new products or established life-savers – so that vital vaccines, treatments and diagnostics reach the growing populations who need them in places hardest-hit by climate change. The latest Access to Medicine Index shows that while multinational companies are implementing more access plans and strategies in low- and middle-income countries, the quality and geographic spread of this work still varies widely, with low-income countries too often left behind.

4. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, operations and facilities.

Some types of medicines have an especially high environmental impact, such as inhalers for asthma and other lung conditions. Although metered dose inhalers (MDIs) containing ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons were phased out in the 1990s, today’s devices still contain hydrofluorocarbons, which are potent greenhouse gases. In the case of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a leader in respiratory medicine, this means that MDIs account for 45% of all its emissions. There are ways forward, however. GSK is now developing a lower-emission propellant with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its inhalers by 90%.


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5. Ensure suppliers, distributors and contract manufacturers meet high sustainability standards, including in reducing emissions and waste.

In the past couple of years there has been growing recognition of the need for action and more companies have committed to firm climate targets, while also linking climate change directly to health. An array of initiatives to decarbonise the industry now exist, although much of the action is centred on supply chain improvements and logistics, rather than manufacturing emissions.

6. Innovate on renewable energy in worldwide operations and transportation, using electric sources wherever possible.

Recently, multiple companies have committed to transition from internal combustion engines to electric cars in the coming years. Beyond transitions to electric vehicle fleets, nearly half of the pharma and biotech sector by revenue have also made broad commitments on overall carbon emissions through the UN's Race to Zero initiative.

With greater action right across its business – from labs to factory floors and product shipments – the pharmaceutical industry could yet play a bigger part in tackling the joint challenges of climate change and health in the years ahead. In doing so, it can help to build a healthier planet.

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