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While still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, health professionals and hospitals are joining forces to respond to another global health emergency: climate change. An international coalition of more than 1,500 healthcare organizations has the goal of addressing their collective environmental impact and exploring new ways to protect public health by improving sustainability in healthcare.

Around the world, we're witnessing the devastating effects that climate change has on people and the environment. The main driver of the crisis – burning fossil fuels – is the primary cause of outdoor air pollution which kills more than four million people every year. Drought, heat waves, wildfires, more intense and severe storms, rising sea levels, and migrating disease vectors are all making climate change the greatest health threat of the 21st century.

Doctors, nurses, and other care providers are increasingly witnessing the climate crisis as a health crisis that directly impacts their patients. They’re also discovering that their hospitals actually contribute to the problem. Now, they’re stepping up to protect people and the planet by advocating for a transition to clean and renewable energy, and by minimizing their carbon footprint as much as possible.

Why is Sustainability Important in Healthcare?

Most people don't realize the size and scope of the healthcare sector’s carbon footprint. The sector accounts for nearly 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth largest climate polluter on the planet.

This is a massive industry and its environmental impact plays a crucial role in society's attempt to combat climate change. The members of an organization known as Health Care Without Harm recognize this, and are uniting to advocate for more sustainable healthcare practices.

Josh Karliner, the group's international director of program and strategy, says, "Overall the biggest source of healthcare's climate footprint is the sector's use of fossil fuels, whether it's burning fossil fuel on-site to produce energy, whether it's buying energy produced by coal, oil, and gas, or whether it's in the supply chain - which is a huge part of healthcare's footprint."

How to Improve Sustainability in Healthcare

More than 300 institutions in 33 countries have committed to take action by joining Health Care Without Harm’s “Health Care Climate Challenge.” These institutions represent the interests of over 22,000 hospitals and health centers.

They include major health systems like England’s National Health Service – which has announced it will go to net zero emissions before 2050, Kaiser Permanente – the largest integrated health system in the U.S. which has just achieved carbon neutrality, and Australia’s National Capital Territory, which is currently building a hospital that will run exclusively on renewable electricity.

Health Care Without Harm is working with these and other systems to identify solutions for better sustainability in healthcare, particularly within the sector’s energy consumption, waste, and supply chain. Its goals include the promotion of green facility construction, eliminating the use of harmful chemicals, and accelerating the implementation of energy efficiency, among others.

If healthcare were a country, it would be the 5th largest climate polluter on the planet. More than 300 institutions in 33 countries have committed to take action.

The international organization has offices in Asia, Europe, the U.S., Latin America, strategic partners across six continents, and a network of hospitals in more than 70 countries. Speaking on the benefits of this global community, Jackie Daniel, a British healthcare administrator says, "This kind of engagement is massively useful because we can learn really quickly from the small wins and gains that other partners and other people are making."

With the help of organizations like Health Care Without Harm, health professionals are banding together to advocate for the changes necessary to improve sustainability in healthcare as a whole. Whether it be Doctors for Clean Air in India or the Nurses Climate Challenge in the U.S. and Europe, these leaders are part of a growing movement that is prioritizing the health of the planet to better protect the health of its people.

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