As the COP26 summit approaches, UN countries are reviewing the action they have taken to meet their climate change goals. In January 2020, the UK’s National Healthcare System (NHS) announced the steps it is taking to reach net-zero status, but what is net-zero status, and how does our NHS plan to reduce its carbon footprint?

What is net-zero and why is it important?

Net-zero is a term that refers to the state in which the greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere are balanced by the greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. In theory, by achieving net-zero status globally, global warming (as it relates to CO2 emissions) will stop.

The international climate change treaty, The Paris Agreement, outlines the need for countries all over the world to achieve a balance between the removal of greenhouse gases and man-made sources of greenhouse gases by 2050.

Why should the NHS reduce its carbon footprint?

All of the UK’s top industries, including farming, manufacturing, and energy, are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, and the NHS is no exception. Reducing its negative impact on the environment is one of NHS’s top priorities, as the carbon emissions released into the Earth’s atmosphere can have catastrophic effects on not only the United Kingdom but the entire global population.

The NHS aims to provide current and future generations with high-quality healthcare, but in order to do that, the healthcare industry must remain resilient to all kinds of health emergencies, including climate change.

The effect of climate change on healthcare

Climate change has the potential to cause an increase in the number of heatwaves, floods, and intense storms experienced worldwide, as well as speeding up the spread of infectious disease. By taking action and reducing its carbon footprint, the NHS can help to reduce the threat that climate change poses on centuries of health gains.

In fact, according to the NHS’s net-zero plan, reaching the United Kingdom’s goals under The Paris Agreement could save over 5,700 lives annually from improved air quality, 38,000 lives annually from making the population more physically active and over 100,000 lives annually from the population eating a healthier diet.

Net-zero deliverability in the NHS

The NHS has been developing sustainable healthcare for over a decade, but creating a plan to work towards net-zero emissions is particularly challenging for such a complex system. To create this plan, the NHS established a Net Zero Expert Panel to review over 600 pieces of evidence and create the following targets:

  • By 2028 to 2032, the NHS’s direct carbon emissions will be reduced by 80%, and net-zero will be reached by 2040 (NHS Carbon Footprint)
  • By 2036 to 2039, the NHS’s indirect carbon emissions will be reduced by 80%, and net-zero will be reached by 2045 (NHS Carbon Footprint Plus)

How is the NHS planning to reduce its carbon footprint?

For the NHS to reduce its carbon footprint, The NHS Long Term Plan (LTP) states that it will aim to reduce some of the following sources of carbon emissions in the NHS:

  • Supply chain: Bed days and prescribed pharmaceuticals.
  • Transport: Staff and patient mileage.
  • Energy: A&E presentations and intensive procedures.

The NHS has placed particular focus on reducing the environmental impact of its supply chain from over 80,000 suppliers. These suppliers produce business and office goods, food, and medical equipment.

While the NHS may not have direct control over the emissions of these suppliers, they are taking the following steps:

  • Using supplies more efficiently.
  • Supporting low-carbon product innovation and substitutions.
  • Ensuring suppliers are decarbonising their production processes.
  • No longer purchasing from suppliers that don’t meet their net-zero standards by 2030.

What are the challenges that the NHS faces in its pathway to net-zero emissions?

To reach net-zero, the NHS will need to remove 24.9 MtCO2e from the NHS Carbon Footprint Plus and 6.1 MtCO2e from the NHS Carbon Footprint, which is equal to the national carbon footprint of Croatia. To achieve this, every area of the NHS will need to act, so the NHS Constitution will need to be updated so that their climate change goals can become a key responsibility for all staff. Every NHS organisation will also need to assign a board-level net-zero lead to support these goals.

As a world leader in sustainability and one of the UK’s biggest employers, the actions taken by the NHS to reach net-zero status will have a significant impact on the UK’s overall carbon emissions.