Climate change poses dual challenge for NHS

As one of the UK's largest carbon emitters and an organisation which will have to deal first hand with the health impacts of intense weather and natural disasters, the NHS is in an unenviable position when it comes to climate change.

The health service commissioned think tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF) to report on how it could respond to climate change and the resulting document advises the NHS to take immediate action on cutting its own emissions as well as investing in preventative healthcare to ‘strengthen the resilience of the population’ as well as in treatments for victims of a warmer, more variable climate.

The health impact of climate change should not be underestimated and neither should the cost to human life of being unprepared.

This was brought home to the perhaps-complacent European community in 2003, when in France alone 15,000 died from the heat during an exceptionally hot summer.

Taking the temperature: towards an NHS response to global warming shows that the NHS is a long way from reducing its energy consumption to meet the government’s target of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2010 and 60% by 2050.

The NHS is the among the world’s biggest employers but, according to the NEF, the sheer scale of the organisation means it has huge potential to implement positive change as well as an undeniably huge environmental impact.

Energy use in NHS healthcare facilities costs £400 million annually and results in a net emission of around 1 million tonnes of carbon and, according to the report, 5 per cent of all the UK’s emissions from road transport are attributable to NHS-related journeys.

One in every 100 tonnes of domestic waste generated in the UK comes from the NHS, with the vast majority going to landfill.

Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents over 90% of NHS organisations, said: “As one of the biggest employers in the UK and the biggest public service, the NHS has a responsibility to tackle climate change and reduce its carbon footprint.

“The report demonstrates that the NHS is starting to rise to the challenge of reducing its carbon footprint – there are some great innovators out there, but there is a long way to go to meet the government’s target of reducing energy admissions.

“By addressing some key aspects such as energy use, transport and waste the NHS can not only have a considerable impact on reducing its carbon footprint but also its costs.”

Andrew Simms, nef policy director and co-author of the report, said: “The NHS will be working on the front-line as climate change hits the UK. The lethal heatwave that hit Paris not long ago shows the kind of thing that we can expect to become more common.

“But, as our climate-health check of the health service shows, an NHS braced for a warming world can play a vital double role.

“First, it can help the nation to cope and adapt, and its contact with over 1 million patients every 36 hours creates huge potential for promoting positive action. Second, it can lead the way by showing how large organisations can cut, radically, their greenhouse gas emissions.

“But, as Taking the temperature shows, global warming is happening, time is running out and – like the rest of us – the NHS has to act now, before the climate becomes critical.”

Sam Bond

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