Blog: Two years on – some words of hope for a healthier future  

Last year, a young boy called Ismail wrote a letter to his doctors at the Great North Children’s Hospital. He thanked them for looking after him when he was sick, and thoughtfully offered some advice on things they could do to look after the planet. After all, he said, looking after the planet would help to take care of the people on it, too. Now and in the future.

Little did he know, he was already in safe hands. Newcastle NHS Foundation Trust were the first trust to declare a climate emergency, and support for sustainable healthcare is ingrained from ward to board. Galvanised, other trusts have followed suit. Every single hospital and integrated care board in the country now has a green plan in place. Collectively, these plans work to improve healthcare while reducing harmful emissions, the equivalent of taking more than a half million cars off the road over the next three years.

Climate change is a health emergency. Air pollution is responsible for 1 in 20 deaths in the UK. The IPCC, the world-leading authority on climate research, sounded the alarm again this year: extreme, damaging weather events, from flooding to heatwaves, are becoming increasingly frequent and intense. Contributing 40% of public sector emissions, and 4% of total UK emissions, the NHS can make a meaningful difference by tackling climate change at source.

This week marks a new milestone in the drive to build a healthier future for people like Ismail.

It’s been two years since the NHS became the world’s first health system to commit to delivering a net zero health service. It was, and remains, a bold ambition. But one that continues to matter for the NHS, its staff, suppliers, and for the patients and communities it serves.

It is no surprise that efforts to reduce the NHS carbon footprint are being driven from the ground up. As health professionals, the links between climate change and health are starkly clear. Nine in ten staff supported the NHS net zero ambition last year. Nine in ten staff reaffirmed their support for it in 2022. And it is now ingrained in UK legislation. The Health and Social Care Act of 2022 enshrined a net zero NHS in law – in recognition of how critical it is to the future of our health and the NHS.

Up and down the country, innovative initiatives are gaining momentum (you can see just a snapshot in this video), with patient care and staff health and wellbeing at their core.

Medicines account for 25% of the NHS carbon footprint. So, it’s great news that hospitals across England, such as this trust in Bristol, are moving away from the use of desflurane – a gas routinely used in surgery with a carbon footprint 20 times higher than clinical equivalents. Today, use of desflurane across the NHS is at its lowest levels. It’s a huge achievement, driven by the clinical community.

In ambulance trusts across the country, a wave of electric rapid response vehicles has been rolled out to relieve pressure on the system, while improving local air quality, as well as staff and patient experience. Earlier this year, the Isle of Wight became the first trust to trial to the use of drones to deliver vital chemotherapy – cutting emissions and delivery times.

Secure power is crucial when it comes to healthcare. The impact of rising energy bills is being felt by everyone, including NHS organisations. Over the last few years, some trusts have taken steps to incorporate renewable sources into their energy mix. In Castle Hill hospital, Hull, an onsite solar field now fuels all their power for the summer months, cutting bills while also reducing emissions. Energy efficiency matters too. Investment over the last few years through the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme has provided welcome support, with more than 50 NHS hospitals already benefitting from energy innovations such as LED lighting, saving money and energy, while creating better healthcare environments for patients.

In addition, we are marking one year on from the publication of the Net Zero Supplier Roadmap. Speaking with suppliers up and down the county, it’s clear they share our passion for net zero healthcare and want to join us on this journey. We’ll soon be running a series of webinars for suppliers about our April 2023 Carbon Reduction Plan milestone.  

However, the job is far from done. The NHS has two targets: net zero by 2040 for the emission it can control, and 2045 for those it can influence. The road ahead is long and challenging, with the NHS and its workforce under pressure.

Yet what is clear from stories of progress is that sustainable healthcare goes hand in hand with high quality healthcare. Embedding sustainable healthcare practices as the NHS looks forward will build in care improvements, cost savings, and carbon reductions. It builds in hope, too.

On the two-year anniversary of this world-first ambition, my hope is that people like Ismail will take comfort in the knowledge that NHS people are taking sustainable steps – just like those he suggested.

From NHS people, to our partners and suppliers, reaching net zero matters to us all. But it will take all of us to make this ambition a reality. To discover how the NHS is becoming greener and to join in – please sign up here: NHS England » Greener NHS

Dr Nick WattsDr 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.