One year on from a world-first ambition – let’s stay impatient on the NHS reaching net zero

The climate crisis is a health crisis. So agreed the NHS Assembly at our pre COP26 meeting where Dr Nick Watts, who has been appointed to lead the NHS’s charge on net zero, laid out how the health problems caused by climate change are very real and very immediate.

And the facts around the NHS’s own impact on climate change are arresting. The health service emits energy at a staggering rate, with almost 5% of the country’s emissions health related, and around 40% of all public sector emissions. Carbon is everywhere in the NHS – the buildings we work in, the energy we use, the equipment we need, the treatments we prescribe.

It is beholden on the NHS and its’ users to fully engage with the carbon reduction agenda. However, there are good reasons to say that the NHS is facing into its responsibilities, with the NHS England board committing to ambitious and inspiring targets:

  • For the emissions we control directly (the NHS Carbon Footprint), we will reach net zero by 2040, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2028 to 2032;
  • For the emissions we can influence (our NHS Carbon Footprint Plus), we will reach net zero by 2045, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2036 to 2039.

These make the NHS the global leader in health system commitments to net zero, and there are some fantastic examples of concrete progress:

  • In Oxford, using electric bikes has halved the delivery time of cancer treatments, while reducing local air pollution.
  • In Bristol, and in other trusts, doctors are moving away from using desflurane, an anaesthetic gas with an environmental impact 60 times greater than other alternatives.
  • In Milton Keynes, solar panels are set to generate more than 15% of the total electricity that the hospital uses and save the Trust over £225,000 a year in energy bills per year

The Assembly heard about many other great examples across the country, not least those led by NHS Assembly member Dame Jackie Daniel at Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the first health organisation in the world to declare a climate emergency.   And these efforts are in addition to the environmental benefits of more care being delivered through remote consultations and monitoring, reducing patient and staff travel to physical healthcare locations.

But while we can feel proud and hopeful about the progress we’re making, the NHS Assembly’s consensus view was that we must stay impatient for change.

Our discussion encouraged all NHS leaders to go further and faster. Consistent governance mechanisms on net zero to be hardwired into every NHS structure. Using the power of social movements to cultivate passion amongst NHS people, challenging inevitability, and giving our NHS people the permission and encouragement to do things differently.

The Assembly also endorsed the very practical tips offered by Imperial College London, from making our voices heard by those in leadership positions, to personal behaviour choices  on diet, transport  and energy use.

The COP26 summit will be a convening moment where the world will be looking at the UK and what we are doing. While the NHS has many good things to report, as Nick Watts told us the key point is not to wait for the perfect intervention to emerge for you to take on net zero. It’s time to “go hard and go everywhere…pick one thing you’re going to wake up tomorrow morning and do.  Then pick the next action on the next day…and keep going”.

The NHS Assembly has reaffirmed its commitment to NHS net zero by 2040, and at this important time, calls on all NHS organisations, leaders and individuals to make their own long term commitment to bring net zero ambition and action into their everyday work.

Find out more by searching Greener NHS.

Chris Ham is currently Co-Chair of the NHS Assembly, Chair of the Coventry and Warwickshire Health and Care Partnership, and non-executive director of the Royal Free London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. He is emeritus professor of health policy and management at the University of Birmingham, visiting professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Senior Visiting Fellow at The King’s Fund where he was Chief Executive between 2010 and 2018. He is an expert adviser to Carnall Farrar.

Chris is the author of over 20 books and numerous articles on health policy and management. During his career, he has worked at the universities of Leeds, Bristol and Birmingham from where he was seconded to the Department of Health to work as the Director of the Strategy Unit between 2000 and 2004. He works at the interface between research and policy drawing on evidence to inform decision making.

Chris has advised the World Bank and the WHO as well as the governments of New Zealand and Sweden. He has served as an advisor in the UK to the Audit Commission, the House of Commons Health Committee and the National Audit Office. He has also been a board member of the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

He is a founding fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and a former vice-president of the Patients’ Association.

Chris was awarded a CBE for his services to the NHS in 2004 and a knighthood for services to health policy and management in 2018. He was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 2004 and an honorary fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 2008. He became a companion of the Institute of Healthcare Management in 2006.

Chris is a regular contributor to radio and TV and writes for the national press on issues concerned with health policy and management.

Professor Dame Clare Gerada

Professor Dame Clare Gerada has more than 35 years experience practising medicine, and has been a driving force behind efforts to provide more wellbeing support for NHS staff. As well as being the first female Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) in 50 years, Clare has held leadership roles with the Department of Health and is on the Council of the British Medical Association.

In the Millennium Birthday Honours Dr Gerada received an MBE for services to medicine and substance misuse. She was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in 2008 and was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in July 2013. Clare was awarded a damehood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2020.