NHS ‘not prepared’ for net-zero transition or climate change health impacts, MPs warn

The NHS accounts for around 4% of the UK's annual emissions

During its 2019 inquiry into planetary health – the ways in which environmental damage and human health are interconnected – the EAC accused Ministers of complacency on issues including air quality, food security

Now, in light of the Government’s 2050 net-zero target and the fact that the EAC membership was reshuffled after the December 2019 election, the EAC is calling for dedicated plans to help the NHS decarbonise.

The NHS is the Government’s largest emitter, with key sources of emissions including buildings, transport, medicine supply chains and inhalers. It failed to meet the Climate Change Act’s original target of a 34% reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2020, with the EAC fearing that it will now miss the 2030 51% target and 2050 net-zero target without targeted policy interventions.

MPs on the committee are particularly concerned about the fact that there are no “firm commitments” to phase out coal and oil use by the NHS, and would like deadlines for these fossil fuels set at 2023-4 and 2028-9 respectively.

The NHS Long Term Plan’s requirements for fleet decarbonisation are also under fire from the EAC. While the plan details a commitment for two-thirds of NHS vehicles to be low-emission by 2028, the EAC heard evidence that a 100% target, deadlined at 2035 at the latest, is necessary.

“The NHS should be taking the lead in the mitigation of climate change, given its size, budget and workforce, particularly when a major impact of climate change is likely to be a deterioration of several measures of population health,” the EAC states. “The Committee on Climate Change is clear that early uptake of EVs brings co-benefits from reductions in air pollution.”

The CCC is notably calling for the government to bring its ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars forward from 2040 to 2035. Boris Johnson has said he will make this move, but not until the now-postponed COP26.

In order to better engage staff, patients and suppliers with the NHS’s net-zero transition, the EAC wants the organisation’s carbon footprint to be published on an annual basis. In addition, communications materials detailing ways in which these stakeholders can contribute should be developed. For suppliers specifically, the development of a new Standard Contract with additional decarbonisation requirements is encouraged.

The EAC does note that work to decarbonise some NHS sites is well underway. The NHS’s Property Services arm, which manages 11% of its estate, recently switched to 100% renewable electricity, for example. Nonetheless, the NHS accounts for around 4% of the UK’s annual emissions.

Last September, NHS England’s chief executive Simon Stevens said the organisation would develop a framework of co-ordinated measures to reduce its carbon footprint within a year. This work is currently delayed due to the pandemic.

“The NHS is important to so many of us throughout the UK and has been particularly evident during the magnificent response of all its staff to the global pandemic,” EAC chair Philip Dunne MP said. “As we get closer to 2050, and the necessity to reach net-zero carbon emissions, we cannot be complacent of the significant role the NHS will play. It must decarbonise its estates urgently, it must phase out oil and gas heating, and must make better use of zero-emission vehicles.”

Broader changes

As with the original inquiry, the new EAC report highlights a number of policy gaps around issues which impact both the environment and human health.

The report explicitly links the degradation of nature to the degradation of human health, warning that life expectancy rates are stalling in the UK and that the rate of infections and deaths from non-communicable diseases and tropical illnesses will increase globally in the coming decades.

It goes on to list a string of policy recommendations, including the development of new legally binding biodiversity targets ahead of the now-postponed biodiversity COP; a rapid increase in funding for Natural England; a ban on the export of pesticides and chemicals to nations with less stringent regulations and measures designed to tackle food insecurity and water scarcity.

Sarah George

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