Plan includes a string of new targets and commits NHS to reducing emissions under its direct control to net zero by 2040, before bringing its supply chain footprint in line by 2045
The NHS today took a major step into the decarbonised future, announcing a multi-year plan to become the world's first net zero national health system.
The move aligns with recommendations by an expert group, the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, which convened in January to analyse evidence on how the health service can help slash UK emissions. Based on its findings, the NHS has adopted two targets: for emissions under its direct control to reach net zero by 2040, with an interim reduction target of 80 per cent by 2028-32; and for its wider supply chain footprint to reach net zero by 2045, with an 80 per cent reduction target set between 2036 and 2039.
Interventions driving progress towards the goal will include developing new ways of delivering care at or closer to home; greening the NHS fleet, including road-testing a net-zero emissions ambulance by 2022; reducing waste of consumable products; making sure new hospitals and buildings are built to be net-zero emissions; and building energy conservation into staff training and education, the panel's report says.
"The evidence that the climate emergency is a health emergency is overwhelming, with health professionals already needing to manage its symptoms," said Dr Nick Watts, who headed the expert panel and will now take on a role as the NHS's chief sustainability officer.
"The NHS's ambition is world-leading, and the first national commitment to deliver a net zero health service. It comes at a time when the UK is preparing to host the UN climate change summit next year, and demonstrates that every part of our societies need to play their part in reducing pollution and responding to climate change," he added.
The NHS, which is Europe's largest employer as well as the UK's largest emitter, faces a major challenge as it works towards supporting the nation's net zero emissions target. In June, the Environmental Audit Committee told the government it was failing to deliver on climate goals within the health service, warning the NHS had already missed the Climate Change Act's original target of a 34 per cent emissions reduction between 1990 and 2020.
But NHS chief executive Sir Simons Stevens stressed today that the organisation's new carbon reduction targets would allow the it to slash its emissions and ultimately continue working to improve the health of the nation.
"2020 has been dominated by Covid-19 and is the most pressing health emergency facing us. But undoubtedly climate change poses the most profound long-term threat to the health of the nation," he said. "It is not enough for the NHS to treat the problems caused by air pollution and climate change - from asthma to heart attacks and strokes - we need to play our part in tackling them at source."
The expert panel's report cites growing evidence of the health impacts of climate change and air pollution, saying the shift to a low carbon world should save thousands of lives and hospitalisations across the UK. Air pollution is linked to killer conditions like heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, and academics have linked high pollution days with hundreds of extra out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and hospital admissions for stroke and asthma.
Meanwhile, the warming climate is generating more frequent heatwaves and extreme weather events such as flooding, including the potential spread of infectious diseases to the UK. Scientists believe perhaps a third of new asthma cases might be avoided by cutting emissions, while Lyme Disease and encephalitis are among conditions expected to become more common as temperatures rise.
The move was welcomed by international body the World Health Organisation, whose director, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stressed that cutting carbon emissions was "essential to protect health, everywhere in the world."
"I welcome the leadership of the largest single health system in the world, the National Health Service in England, in committing to be carbon neutral in its own operations by 2040, and to drive emissions reductions in its suppliers and partners. Health is leading the way to a greener, safer planet," Ghebreyesus added.
Business figures also welcomed the announcement. Former We Mean Business CEO Nigel Topping - the UK's High Level Action Champion for COP26 - hailed the NHS's ambitious decarbonisation plan as "fantastic news".
Fantastic news: The UK's largest employer @NHSuk is working towards #netzero goal by 2040. The NHS makes up 4% of the world's carbon emissions - so this is a big commitment to reduce emissions. Delighted to see health accelerating the #RaceToZero: https://t.co/amC1Hp8Nal— Nigel Topping (@topnigel) October 1, 2020
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