NHS and health and care sector hit first target on climate change – but more testing goals are to come

The NHS and wider health and care sector is over the first hurdle in the race to reach carbon reduction targets and help limit the effects of climate change.

A report from the Sustainable Development Unit for NHS England and Public Health England showed the NHS has reduced its carbon emissions by 11% between 2007 and 2015 – exceeding the 10% target set in 2009.  The wider sector, which also includes public health and social care, has seen a 13% reduction over the same period.

These are notable achievements considering health and care activity has increased by 18% since 2007. However more work will be needed to reach the target set out in the Climate Change Act 2008.

Multiple factors have contributed to the reduction. Carbon emissions in relation to procurement have reduced by 16% – a large part of this is due to improvements in the footprint of pharmaceuticals (through both carbon intensity of products and spend reductions).

In addition energy emissions have reduced by 4% and travel by 5%. These improvements offer more than just environmental benefits, they also represent significant cost savings and health benefits. Ensuring we capitalise on all the “co-benefits” is critical to helping the NHS and wider health system meet the multiple challenges it faces.

Improvements in building energy use through actions such as using combined heat and power (CHP) systems and staff behaviour change programmes, have contributed energy savings of £25m in the last year. In the case of transport reductions, the figures also represent a fall in the health sector’s contribution to air pollution in local communities. This improves health directly and reduces the strain on the NHS of having to treat preventable illnesses.

Reaching the 2015 goal is an important step in achieving the vision of a sustainable, resilient and low carbon health and care system set out in the Sustainable Development Strategy for the health and care sector. However, forecasts in the report show if we continue to cut emissions at the same rate the sector will reach 30% reduction by 2050 compared with Climate Change Act target of 80%.

Consequently this report also identifies additional opportunities for carbon reduction in the future which can help to get closer to the Climate Change Act target. These include reducing waste by working better with supply chains, finding alternatives for harmful gases used in some medical devices and procedures and helping people to make lifestyle changes that prevent ill health in the first place. Many of these opportunities will improve the health of people and save money, as well as reduce carbon emissions.

There is still a significant need for innovation to reach the next milestone of 34% reduction by 2020 – in both implementing what we know and improving health in ways that have a lower carbon footprint in future.

The good work being done is strongly supported by the public who recognised the importance of the agenda shown by recent public survey results commissioned by the SDU. The results show 92% of people think is important for the health and care system to work in a more sustainable way and 25% believe it should be a top priority – both increases since the survey was last conducted in 2013.

Report recommendations

  1. Leaders work together and engage with people at all levels to make sure change happens.
  2. The financial benefits of sustainability, along with environmental and health, need to be demonstrated more clearly – the SDU will be publishing a document focusing on this in the summer.
  3. The new models of care being developed should consider sustainability in the design process.
  4. Industry and private sector partnerships can be used to help develop innovation and unlock solutions that can be shared cross the sector
  5. The National Cross System Group for Sustainable Development in Health should provide a yearly report on progress to the Boards of national bodies to support the continued implementation of the SDS.

David Pencheon, Director, Sustainable Development Unit said: “Meeting this first target is a great achievement for the NHS and wider system and shows that as a sector we’re taking this challenge seriously. But we know we need to do a lot more to meet future ambitions.  Our forecasts show there are a number of ways the sector can save more carbon – and we will need to find even more in the future.

It’s important to remember the many opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint will also improve the health of people and save money as well.  We know regular active travel for example to work improves health, reduces air pollution and other environmental impacts -but we can go further. For instance reducing waste pharmaceuticals, using technology to improve access to services, reducing use of propellant inhalers and using anaesthetic gases efficiently are just a few actions that will save time, money and carbon.”

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