World Health Day: can our stories change the world?

The story of the NHS could rival some of the best novels ever written.

It is full of firsts: the world’s first universal healthcare system; the first to initiate a clinically approved COVID-19 vaccination programme; the first to deliver a combined lung and heart transplant. It has faced its share of adversity; not least, the management of an unprecedented pandemic. It is full of passionate characters; people who get up every day with the goal of caring for others.

Today, on World Health Day, the World Health Organization is encouraging organisations around the world to share their stories of action on climate change.

The climate crisis is a health emergency. More than 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes. Research published this week has found 99% of people breathe unhealthy air resulting from burning of fossil fuels. Urgent action is needed to protect our planet and our health.

In October 2020, the NHS wrote a new chapter in its story, when it became the world’s first health service to commit to reaching net zero carbon. A goal that will see it contribute to the improvement of health now and for generations to come.

In practice, the story of building a greener NHS began long before this date. The NHS has always taken a leadership role in tackling climate change at source. Contributing almost 40% of UK public sector emissions, it can make a real difference.

Over the last ten years, steps to reduce its emissions has seen the NHS reduce its carbon footprint by 30% – ahead of the UK Climate Change Act target.

Steps like those taken in Milton Keynes, where solar panels installed on the roof now power the hospital while reducing costs. Steps like those in Oxford, where courier bikes have halved the time to deliver vital chemotherapy, while reducing transport emissions. Or steps like those in Bristol, where clinicians are moving away from the use of carbon intensive anaesthetic gases.

Today, these steps are turning into strides.

Last month, London Ambulance Service invested £16 million in an electric response fleet – which will see it become the greenest fleet in the country. As well as reducing emissions and improving air quality, the new fleet of vehicles will introduce technology to improve patient care and staff safety. In Hull, a new solar powered “field of dreams” is set to provide all the energy needed to power Castle Hill hospital, when it opens later this year.

Policy is keeping pace too.

The roll out of the primary care investment and impact fund this month will help to improve respiratory health, while reducing emissions from inhalers – which account for 3% of the NHS carbon footprint. Patients will be supported to consider the right inhaler for them, including lower carbon options, while providing a teachable moment for clinicians to help improve inhaler technique.

As of April 2022, the NHS will include consideration of net zero in every tender, by adopting a minimum 10% weighting for net zero across all procurement. Given the NHS procures services from around 80,000 suppliers, the potential for this to make a difference is huge.

Of course, the road ahead isn’t straight-forward. Like every story, there will be twists and turns.

In February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its bleakest assessment of the impacts of climate change yet. The science is unequivocal: human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world.

Yet, there is reason for optimism within the health sector. The IPCC called out the NHS for its response on climate change, holding it up as an example to the global healthcare community – a community that together produces emissions that would make it equivalent to the fifth largest country.

The NHS has taken its position seriously, partnering with the World Health Organization to help other health systems around the world to decarbonize, and in turn, starting to mobilise a globalised healthcare supply chain to follow suit.

Bold moves matter. But it will be down to the collective strides of the more than 1.4 million NHS staff that will ensure we achieve our net zero ambition.

As staff up and down the country stand together with organisations around the world in sharing stories to mark this year’s World Health Day, we turn the page once more in our efforts to build a greener NHS.

Today, I encourage you to join in too, and help us write a future we can all be proud of.



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.