Calls for urgent action on climate change are growing ever louder across the globe.
This week, US President-elect Joe Biden announced plans for a climate summit of the world’s major economies early next year and committed to re-joining the Paris Agreement on the first day of his presidency.
And in France, President Emmanuel Macron announced that the nation would hold a referendum on revising the country’s constitution to recognise the importance of tackling climate change.
In Australia, however, progress to net zero emissions remains “massively behind schedule“.
In a report released this week, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) is calling for the healthcare sector to take the lead in climate action setting a goal of achieving net zero emissions in the sector in 2040.
The report comes after the Western Australian Government this month committed to establish a sustainable development unit to drive climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in the health system, and the release of a landmark report into climate and health.
In the article below, we outline the DEA’s key recommendations.
Nicole MacKee writes:
“Health and the environment are inextricably linked. It is therefore integral for healthcare to lead in enabling a healthier future. This must include getting its own house in order,” says Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), which is calling on the healthcare sector to cut carbon emissions.
In its report – Net zero carbon emissions: responsibilities, pathways and opportunities for Australia’s healthcare sector – the DEA has called for an interim target of an 80 percent reduction in healthcare’s CO2 emissions from 2014/15 levels by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2040.
“Achieving net zero emissions and thereby mitigating the climate crisis is fundamental to upholding the healthcare sector’s core mission to maintain and improve health, and our responsibility to first do no harm,” the DEA said in its report.
“Significant emission reductions from the sector will yield economic benefits and wider health co-benefits (for example, lower heart and lung disease from switching to renewable energy and the concomitant reduction in air pollution).”
On the front line
Report co-author Dr Hayden Burch said the health sector was on the front line of climate change impacts.
“From bushfires to heatwaves, health professionals in our hospitals and emergency departments are having to deal with the health problems,” Dr Burch told Croakey, pointing to the 2019-20 bushfires as a “striking” example of the health consequences of climate change.
The report noted during these bushfires, there were more than 3,000 cardiovascular and respiratory hospital admissions, 1,305 asthma presentations to emergency departments and 417 deaths attributable to smoke in Queensland, NSW, the ACT and Victoria.
Burch said, alongside these concerns, it was important to acknowledge the healthcare sector’s contribution to Australia’s carbon footprint. The report estimated that the healthcare sector accounted for seven percent of Australia’s total carbon emissions.
Hospitals are responsible for the bulk of the healthcare sector’s carbon emissions (44 percent), the report stated, while pharmaceuticals were responsible for 10 percent. It said:
The Australian healthcare sector’s significant carbon footprint and reliance on fossil fuel energy sources means that it is contributing toward some of the very diseases it seeks to manage and treat.”
The report also noted the comparatively lower carbon emission contributions from the preventative/public health (6 percent) and primary health (4 percent) sectors.
“Generally low cost and environmentally friendly, prevention measures such as addressing diet, physical activity, smoking, stress and substance misuse have the potential to eliminate the need for more costly future treatments while improving physical wellbeing and mental health,” the report stated.
Call for action
The report includes six recommendations for action, including the establishment of a national Sustainable Healthcare Unit (SHU) within the next two years.
Earlier this month, the Western Australian Government announced plans to establish a sustainable development unit in the state’s Health Department to drive climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in the health system.
According to the DEA report, a national SHU would “provide co-ordination and strategic direction for state-based SHUs’ initiatives seeking to optimise benefits across the health sector”.
The unit would also assist in developing integrated sustainable models of care, strengthening primary care and public health, water, waste and plastic management and chemical use.
In addition to the establishment of an SHU, the DEA has recommended several other goals:
- 100 percent renewable energy supply to all Australian hospitals by 2025
- no new gas installations or upgrades in Australian hospitals from 2021
- reduction of healthcare demand through prioritising preventative and primary care and sustainable models of care
- procurement of medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and goods with low carbon footprints, and reduction in travel emissions through telemedicine and electric vehicle fleets
- establishment of a National Net Zero Expert Panel in 2021 to assist in guiding interim emission reduction targets and pathways for the healthcare sector.
The report noted that some carbon reduction initiatives were already underway in the healthcare sector, pointing to an Ambulance Victoria commitment to source 100 percent renewable energy by 2025.
Also, an extension to Canberra Hospital – set for completion in 2024 – will be powered entirely with renewable electricity.
First, do no harm
Burch said there was “broad and growing” awareness of the importance of tackling climate change within the healthcare sector.
“The Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian College of Physicians, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australian College of Emergency Medicine, [among others], have all acknowledged the science and declared climate change a health emergency,” he said.
“And everyone involved as health professionals acknowledges our ethical responsibility to ‘first, do no harm’.”