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From mitigation to adaptation: 3 lessons for leaders putting health at the heart of climate action

The healthcare sector generates nearly 5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

The healthcare sector generates nearly 5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Image: Pexels.

Pam Cheng
Executive Vice President - Global Operations & IT, Chief Sustainability Officer, AstraZeneca
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  • The health sector must take action to mitigate its impact and help health systems adapt to increasing burdens.
  • Public-private partnerships demonstrate how initiatives can help build sustainable, equitable and resilient health systems.
  • Highlighting impactful initiatives – here are three lessons for leaders looking to drive climate action at scale.

With population, societal and planetary health all impacted by the climate crisis, we must step up both within and beyond the health sector to deliver more sustainable health systems.

The impact is reverberating through economies too, and if left unchecked costs could spiral to $178 trillion over the next 50 years. And it disproportionately burdens the most vulnerable, with up to 132 million people being pushed into extreme poverty due to climate change by 2030.

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As context, the healthcare sector generates nearly 5% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and supply chains account for as much as 71% of this. The lion’s share of emissions often sit in Scope 3 (i.e. those emissions which are not produced by an organization itself, but across its full value chain), so effective collaboration with suppliers and partners is essential to drive positive change.

This means mitigating our impact through lowering the environmental footprint of healthcare delivery, and helping health systems adapt to the rising burdens of the climate’s impact on health. This will help us accelerate the transition towards resilient, equitable and net-zero health systems.

Here are three lessons for leaders looking to drive climate action at scale:

1. Collaboration is key to decarbonizing healthcare supply chains

Members of the Sustainable Markets Initiative Health Systems Task Force – a public-private partnership of pharma CEOs, the World Health Organization, health systems and academia, championed by AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot – recently came together to set joint, minimum climate and sustainability targets. These targets aim to streamline the asks of suppliers and encourage action across the healthcare value chain. They also go above and beyond carbon, with targets on water and waste, for example, recognizing the broader environmental impact of our sector.

What’s more, members of this Task Force are working to jointly evaluate renewable power purchase agreements (PPAs) in China and India, recognizing the opportunity to decarbonize upstream where many healthcare starting materials originate. This is a new and important way of working and complements the green PPAs being established by individual organizations such as ours.

Through collaboration, we can create positive demand signals for renewables with the goal of additional supply in the marketplace and economies of scale, further incentivizing “going green”. The Energize programme launched at COP26 is a case in point, enabling healthcare suppliers the opportunity to participate in the market for PPAs.

2. Solving tough challenges requires innovative solutions and partnerships

In terms of health sector decarbonization, one tough challenge we face is generating clean heat and power, which are critical to the manufacture of medicines but where access to certified low and zero carbon fuels is currently limited.

Just today, AstraZeneca announced a 15-year partnership with Future Biogas to establish the UK’s first unsubsidized industrial-scale supply of biomethane gas, and is investing in major energy efficiencies in our own operations, totaling a commitment of £100 million. The initiative will provide additional renewable capacity to the national gas grid, as well as power our site in Macclesfield, the UK’s largest medicines manufacturing facility.

This follows on from an innovative partnership established with Vanguard Renewables to deliver biomethane to all of our US research and manufacturing sites by 2026. Here, the gas is created from agricultural and food waste, contributing to the circular economy and removing methane which would otherwise have gone into the atmosphere.

Just as we saw in the pandemic, innovation delivered through collaboration can solve the hardest challenges. While the transition to clean heat isn’t easy, co-creating solutions with partners outside of our sector – such as agriculture and energy in this instance – can lead to “out-of-the-box” thinking and creative results. We must also not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and embrace shared learnings along the way for continuous improvement.


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

3. Net-zero must go hand-in-hand with resilience

Beyond mitigation efforts to limit our environmental impact, it is critical that we help systems adapt to the multiple strains on public health – including the rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, cancer and infectious diseases, all of which are exacerbated by the climate crisis.

Health systems must be strengthened so that they are able to respond to current and future health needs. Greater, smarter investment is critical to support acting earlier when it comes to prevention, early detection, and optimal treatment of illness and disease. In short, we need to move from “sick care” systems to healthcare systems.

These have been some of the guiding principles behind the Partnership for Health System Sustainability and Resilience (PHSSR), a unique collaboration that aims to strengthen health systems through evidence-based policy change. Since its launch in 2020 by the World Economic Forum, London School of Economics and AstraZeneca, the programme has expanded to include additional partners and is active in more than 30 countries worldwide.

For example, significant opportunities for multi-stakeholder engagement have been created in Brazil, Greece, Canada, Italy and Germany, galvanizing political will to strengthen health systems. Thanks to the convening power of the World Economic Forum, world-class research developed by leading researchers across the countries involved, and other partners committed to taking the actions that will build more resilience, this global programme is now helping transform health systems around the world.

Transition to net-zero health systems

To advance solutions on the scale required to tackle the climate crisis, we need bold action and smart investments – not tomorrow but today. Siloed, fragmented or piecemeal approaches won’t cut it.

This is now mission critical. Let’s step up to this urgent challenge and make the transition to resilient, equitable and net-zero health systems a reality.

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalHealth and Healthcare SystemsClimate Action
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