Healthcare can use its ethical, economic, and political influence to be a leader in climate action. For years, the healthcare sectors have shifted qualitatively in environmental protection and transitioning to fully green institutions. They continue to develop this approach, as evidenced by the recent emergence of what is known as “working through the recovery mission.” Today, more than 50 healthcare institutions represent the interests of over 14,000 hospitals and health centers in 24 countries racing towards “zero pollution” in healthcare without harm. This has become a pioneering indicator of the progress and positive transformation achieved by environmentally friendly hospitals.
It is scientifically established that climate change is already causing or exacerbating many health problems worldwide. As the earth’s temperature rises, infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and others spread, threatening to abort the hard-won health gains in many parts of the planet. Additionally, increasing heat waves and their frequency lead to the death of tens of thousands and exacerbate asthma, heart disease, and heatstroke. Meanwhile, increasingly severe storms, droughts, fires, and floods damage human health and expose vulnerable and ill-prepared health systems to risk.
Therefore, in the context of the climate challenge, the leaders of most hospitals, health centers, and health systems worldwide have pledged to adhere to global standards for climate protection and to avoid any harm that hospital work may cause to the environment. The phenomenon of climate change has become an urgent issue in recent decades, posing the greatest threat to public health in the 21st century, as the Lancet Commission stated in 2009. Since then, the climate crisis has only deepened, and science has become increasingly indisputable, increasing the urgent need for constructive action.
The Health Effects of Environmental Pollution
Researchers confirm that if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, the effects of climate change could be severe and widespread within decades, potentially leading to uncontrollable public health issues. Fossil fuel emissions are a major source of local health problems, killing over four million people annually, according to the World Health Organization.
In October 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a troubling report, finding that “avoiding the worst impacts of climate change requires rapid and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Such change includes the transformation of building engineering and management, which hospitals have been and continue to be leaders in as they convert to eco-friendly buildings and institutions to protect their patients and the broader community from any unknown health effects.
The transition to a zero-emissions economy will benefit both the climate and public health. Experts believe that healthcare, which accounts for 4.4 percent of global net emissions, should take primary prevention and align its operations and supply chains with the ambitious Paris Agreement to reduce emissions.
As healthcare providers, such as hospitals, healthcare systems, and government healthcare institutions, work to reduce their climate footprint and move towards zero emissions, they have been building the workforce and infrastructure to do so. Working with their communities, they have been flexible in responding and adapting to the evolving climate crisis. Hospitals and healthcare centers are playing a leadership role in their broader communities, advocating for the transition to a healthy, zero-emissions economy, and are continuing to make great strides in this direction.
The Essence of Environmental Health Transformation
How is this environmental health transformation achieved, and what is its essence?
Healthcare can help build a future of healthy hospitals and healthy people by implementing transformative climate solutions that reduce harmful pollution and enhance resilience. The challenge of healthcare’s commitment to environmental conditions is building local or global alliances that are environmentally friendly and committed to this transformation. At the forefront are healthcare institutions. This is where the “Healthcare Without Harm” initiative began, where this challenge requires healthcare institutions, from small clinics to large hospitals and healthcare systems, to commit to effective climate measures while building a collective, border-crossing impact.
Under the leadership of high-level climate leaders Nigel Topping and Gonzalo Muñoz, Race to Zero mobilizes non-governmental actors to join the environmentally friendly alliance. The “Healthcare Without Harm” campaign, supported by the United Nations, mobilizes non-governmental actors to take immediate and rigorous actions to transform into green institutions and achieve a healthier and more just carbon-free world. So far, more than 50 healthcare institutions representing the interests of more than 14,000 hospitals and health centers in 23 countries have joined Race to Zero with Health Care Without Harm. As entities concerned with health and safety, they know that preparedness is necessary to combat the climate crisis and that the road to recovery begins with transformative climate solutions. Therefore, hospitals have taken on this task and have transformed into green hospitals. By joining Race to Zero, healthcare institutions gain membership in the Health Care Climate Challenge, Global Green and Healthy Hospitals. These networks provide access to a range of tools, resources, and people to help healthcare institutions reduce carbon emissions and implement successful sustainability projects and programs.
Hospitals and the Climate Crisis
It is well-known that many hospitals around the world are major energy consumers, and therefore they can make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. They can rely on renewable energy and other smart climate strategies to enhance access to healthcare and improve health outcomes. Many healthcare institutions have committed to leading the march towards emission-free and pollution-free healthcare, by setting clear and practical goals for it. They are working to implement energy-efficient measures by deploying clean renewable energy to power their buildings, adopting purposeful procurement policies, and scientifically disposing of waste, among other measures.
One of the measures that healthcare institutions have committed to in order to become green institutions is building resilience to climate crisis and responding to its requirements. In order to secure the best service for their communities, hospitals and healthcare centers had to remain operational during extreme climate events and be equipped to respond to the healthcare needs of their immediate community, and be prepared to change disease patterns. For example, they pledge to be prepared for the effects of climate change by becoming more resilient in facing climate impacts and directing and supporting their communities to do the same. Green hospitals are working to implement a series of measures to ensure that their physical infrastructure, employees, and communities are ready to adapt immediately to extreme climate events, long-term effects of changing disease patterns, as well as other climate impacts.