Net-zero healthcare: Pharmaceutical giants collaborate on decarbonisation pathway

Seven major pharmaceutical companies, including GSK and AstraZeneca, have pledged to follow a new joint industry roadmap to net-zero in line with a 1.5C temperature pathway. The roadmap includes commitments on clean energy, supplier engagement, fleets and product use.

Net-zero healthcare: Pharmaceutical giants collaborate on decarbonisation pathway

The firms will use their joint impact to engage with suppliers and other key stakeholders

The roadmap has been unveiled today (3 November) by the Sustainable Markets Initiative’s (SMI) Health Systems Task Force. The Task Force was launched at COP26 by the SMI, which was at the time headed by then-Prince of Wales Charles. Its aim is to respond to the links between the climate crisis and public health, including the healthcare sector’s own climate impact – equivalent to some 4-5% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the past 12 months, Task Force members and SMI representatives have collaborated to map what they claim is a 1.5C-aligned pathway to bolster existing long-term net-zero goals across the sector. The pathway will be followed by AstraZeneca, GSK, Merck KGaA, Novo Nordisk, Roche, Samsung Biologics and Sanofi.

Included in the roadmap are commitments to jointly explore renewable power purchase agreements (PPAs) in China and India in 2023 and to evaluate the use of low or zero-carbon heat solutions by 2025 as part of work to shift to 100% renewable energy for operations. The roadmap also states that companies will switch all car fleets to 100% zero-emission vehicles this decade.

Recognising that the supply chain accounts for more than half of the global healthcare sector’s emissions, the businesses will collaborate on a new set of supplier standards on sustainability. These standards are yet to be unveiled.

The majority of the sector’s remaining emissions are accounted for by patient care. As such, the new roadmap includes a commitment for a shared approach to life cycle emissions analyses and conveying product emissions. This data and communication will be used to build an end-to-end care pathway emissions calculation standard and tool.

Given that private healthcare firms are not the only stakeholders involved in patient care, the new roadmap states that the firms will “collaborate with stakeholders including health policymakers, regulators, payers, providers, healthcare professionals and patient groups to raise awareness on the need and opportunity to decarbonise care pathways”.

Another key source of emissions covered by the commitment is clinical trials. The companies participating have agreed to measure emissions from phase 2 and phase 3 clinical trials by 2025, following initial measurements next year. Emissions reductions targets will then be drawn up for this decade. The SMI has stated that digital technologies will play a key role in reducing the climate impact of clinical trials, and, as such, at least 90% of trials commencing in 2025 from the seven companies should include a test and/or review of such technologies.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the new commitments from the seven companies. He said: “The case for decarbonising our health systems is clear, and failing to keep the 1.5°C goal alive will have irreversible impacts on global health. Transitioning to low-carbon, climate-resilient health systems is essential for every country’s journey towards universal health coverage. The commitments announced today demonstrate the power of public-private partnership to achieve positive and sustainable change for the health of people and the planet.”

Lancet report

Last week, The Lancet published its 2022 report on health and climate change, entitled ‘Countdown’. This is perhaps the most significant report on the topic of the year. The Lancet has stated that climate change is “the greatest global health threat” of this century and called for approaches to reducing emissions and building climate resilience that also bring about public health benefits.

The report warns that climate change is already impacting public health and worker productivity. It notes that, in 2021, $669bn of potential income loss was recorded due to heat. The agriculture sector was the worst hit and, geographically, the Global South fared worse than developed nations.

The Lancet has tracked an uptick in heat-related deaths and cases of hunger. Heat-related deaths among elderly people and infants were 68% higher in 2018-2021 than in 2000-2004.

It is also warning of the link between warming temperatures and extreme weather events and infectious diseases. Upticks are evidenced in cases of malaria in the Americas and Africa, and of dengue transmission in Africa and Asia.

Worryingly, the report reveals that five nations are spending more on fossil fuel subsidies than on national health, including Egypt and Iran. A further 26 countries are spending more than 10% of what they allocate to national health on fossil fuel subsidies.

There are still opportunities to change track, the report states, which would reap benefits for people and planet. It argues that clean energy investments could prevent 1.3 million deaths globally each year, predominantly through improvements in air quality. It reiterates the link between plant-based diets, good public health and reducing agri-food emissions.

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