Healthier future inspires major NHS suppliers to step-up net zero ambitions

As negotiators gather for the United Nations global climate change summit, COP26, an international group of leaders from some of the NHS’s largest suppliers have come together to pledge their support for a greener NHS, in recognition of the unequivocal threat to health presented by climate change.

Left unabated, climate change will disrupt care, with poor environmental health contributing to major illnesses, such as asthma, heart disease and cancer.

The group, including the Chief Executives of Unilever, GSK, AstraZeneca, Biogen, BT Group, Novo Nordisk, Microsoft, Smith and Nephew, Medtronic, and Elis, as well as Apple Vice President for Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, have committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2045 or earlier across scopes 1, 2, and 3. Their support has been driven by the desire to improve health now and for generations to come.

In October 2020, the NHS became the world’s first health service to commit to reaching net zero carbon. Convened by Lord David Prior, NHS England Chair, the group of international leaders, which also included trade body representatives and experts on climate change and health, was established earlier this year with the goal of raising ambition in support of a greener NHS.

The NHS is made up of more than 1.4 million people. We’ll need the support of every one of them if the NHS is to fulfil its commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions.

But this is only part of the challenge. The NHS relies on more than 80,000 suppliers to provide high-quality care – from the provision of nutritious food and world-class medical equipment, to safe and secure healthcare facilities. We’ll need them to come on this journey with us too if we are to succeed.

Action on this agenda is complex, not least because the NHS supply chain is global, and our suppliers themselves have supply chains of their own. At a panel event at COP26 earlier this week, the Chief Executive of GSK made clear that “radical collaboration” is the only way forward. She is right.

That’s why today’s announcement is so important. It marks a sea-change in NHS procurement, with suppliers accounting for emissions equivalent to the UK’s 10 biggest cities, twice over, committing to support the NHS’s net zero ambitions with targets of 2045 or earlier.

While the NHS itself can influence the emissions of suppliers through procurement choices – and this will play a significant role – we still need our suppliers to come with us on this journey. To take bold, decisive action within their own organisations, and make clear, evidence-based commitments.

Writing today in the British Medical Journal online, the leaders of each of these companies have gone further still, offering their support and to share best practice with the entire NHS supply chain.

This moment comes weeks after the NHS published its Net Zero Supplier Roadmap, charting a route towards a net zero healthcare system and laying out a process for collaboration over the coming years. The end point is clear. By April 2027, the NHS will no longer purchase from suppliers that have not aligned with our trajectory towards net zero carbon.

Step by step, many organisations are recognising the value that becoming greener can offer and are working to decarbonise their operations. But for others, this may feel challenging right now. The NHS is committed to working in collaboration with suppliers to resolve roadblocks along the way and continues to consult on its roadmap with industry partners. This extends to small and medium-sized enterprises and the charitable sector in particular, where the NHS will work hand-in-hand to deliver high-quality, sustainable care.

COP26 has provided a catalyst for action. We now need to turn that into tangible progress, year on year, to realise a healthier, low-carbon future.

Dr Nick Watts

Dr Nick Watts is the Chief Sustainability Officer of the NHS, responsible for its commitment to deliver a world-class net zero emission health service. Based in London, he leads the Greener NHS team across the country, which focuses on improving the health of patients and the public through a robust and accelerated response to climate change and the broader sustainability agenda.

Nick is a medical doctor licensed in Australia and the UK, and has trained population health and public policy. He is a Member by Distinction of the Royal College of Physicians’ Faculty of Public Health, and an Honorary Associate Professor of University College London’s Institute for Global Health.

Prior to the National Health Service, Nick worked internationally as the Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown and the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, a collaboration of UN agencies and academic centres across the world. He has also focused on engaging the health profession on the links between public health and climate change, having founded both the Global Climate and Health Alliance and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.