A 'reckoning' in healthcare: The climate crisis and what the industry can do about it

With each year, climate change accelerates. With it, so does the threat to people’s health and survival. 

In one of the most comprehensive reports on climate change, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed earlier this year that the world is likely to pass a dangerous temperature threshold in the next decade. At that point, climate disasters will become so extreme it will be impossible to adapt. That is, unless nations immediately transition away from fossil fuels. 

What is the healthcare industry’s role in addressing the environmental crisis? In the U.S., healthcare accounts for 10% of the nation’s carbon emissions (which make up 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions). By contrast, the aviation industry accounts for 2% of U.S. carbon emissions.

Last year, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services launched a health sector climate pledge, committing to climate resilience and reducing emissions. Organizations that join volunteer to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. So far, 116 organizations have signed on, including more than 15% of U.S. hospitals

Fierce Healthcare talked with Gary Cohen, president and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, about the way healthcare is addressing its role in climate change.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fierce Healthcare: Healthcare is more involved in climate action than ever. What do you think of this growing movement and what is driving it? 

Gary Cohen: The underpinning of healthcare is the Hippocratic oath to first do no harm. So it's against the mission of healthcare to be poisoning people in the environment. 

There's a reckoning that's happening in the healthcare sector around addressing its own climate footprint—recognizing that in times of crisis, people rely on the healthcare industry to catch them, to heal them. We are realizing also that healthcare hasn't designed its facilities and its supply chain to address this level of collective trauma.

Governments are also coming to this. Health Care Without Harm joined with the World Health Organization and the National Health Service and designed a health program. During COP26, 62 countries signed up. That's incredible—62 countries! 

FH: There is growing pressure from clinicians, not just people in dedicated sustainability roles, to engage in climate action. Is that the result of becoming more aware of the crisis or having a more prominent voice in strategy? 

GC: Younger clinicians that are coming of age now and starting to work in healthcare are passionate about the climate crisis. They see it for what it is, which is an existential threat and the greatest public health threat we face on the planet. 

There's a very powerful argument that phasing out fossil fuels will also be good for people's health. So there's a very strong health-based reason to address the climate crisis.

FH: You are also supporting the U.N.-backed Race to Zero campaign. More than 60 institutions representing 14,000 hospitals and health centers globally have signed on. With something that size, how will you track progress and hold organizations accountable? 

GC: We developed a road map around the key interventions that healthcare needs to make to decarbonize. We also created a tool called Climate Checkup, which allows [healthcare organizations] to actually measure their footprint and their progress.

Transparency in this sector is critical, because there are many different companies all over the world making various claims about their climate footprint. There are various tools out there; some of them are limited in scope. They only cover the energy that the hospital uses (Scope 1) or the energy that it buys (Scope 2). 

But in healthcare, Scope 3 is in their supply chain and in their investments. And that could be 75% of healthcare's climate footprint. We created a tool that allows hospitals to measure their Scopes 1, 2 and 3 greenhouse gas emissions. There are many systems that don't have the money to hire a big consulting firm or high-tech firm to provide a tool for them like that. We think that every hospital should be able to move down this path.

FH: In terms of supply chain and addressing Scope 3 emissions, what is the benefit of aggregate purchasing power for providers? 

GC: What our experience has been is that if we can create standards for what toxic-free, climate-smart, low-carbon products look like, then we can aggregate across many large hospital systems that are in our membership to create the market demand for innovations in the healthcare supply chain.

That kind of aggregated power of healthcare, which represents tens of billions of dollars, is a very strong incentive for the supply chain companies to innovate toward low-carbon, promising technologies.