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Call for doctors to head up fight against climate change

BMA international committee hosts meeting on ways the medical profession can combat global warming

Doctors must be at the centre of the fight against climate change, a meeting of the BMA international committee has heard.

The medical profession needs to take a central role in highlighting the global climate emergency if the worst health effects of rising temperatures resulting from climate change are to be addressed, according to UK Health Alliance on Climate Change chair Richard Smith.

Dr Smith outlined his call to action as part of an online meeting of the association’s international committee yesterday.

The meeting came at the same time UN chief Antonio Guterres warned delegates attending the COP27 climate summit in Egypt that humanity had to either ‘cooperate or perish’ when it came to responding to climate change.

He warned governments around the world were failing to implement policies necessary to avoid a 1.5 degree increase in global temperatures, something he said would ultimately affect health through heatwaves, shortages of land, food and water and a rise in infectious disease.


Hospital emissions

Dr Smith further warned health services around the world were contributing to the climate crisis by being among some of the largest sources of carbon emissions.

He said: ‘[Carbon emissions] are the biggest threat to health in the world today and yet health systems are making it worse rather than better.

‘Globally if healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet, the US health system accounts for about 12 per cent of US carbon emissions, in the UK, the NHS accounts for about 5 per cent of emissions, with one in 20 vehicles on the road in the UK related to the NHS.’

Representing 35 health organisations including the BMA, Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of Physicians and around 970,000 health professionals, the UKHACC aims to support the NHS in its ambition to reach net zero.


England leads

Dr Smith said there were signs of encouragement with NHS England arguably leading the world as a health system that, through the Sustainable Development Unit and latterly the Greener NHS, had a long-term plan for cutting its carbon emissions.

Among the measures individual doctors and organisations such as the BMA should adopt in pursuit of pushing for greater change, Dr Smith said lobbying the UK government to increase the funding and assistance provided to poorer nations who were often the most adversely affected by climate change.

He added that the association should seek to engage with and encourage its international counterparts to become more active on the climate crisis and in pushing for health services in their countries to reach net-zero emissions.

He said: ‘Here in England, we really are a world leader when it comes to climate change and health.

‘NHS England is really the only health system in the world, not even including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that not only has a commitment to get to net zero but has a plan to do so.

‘It has been working on this problem for 15 years, whereas many health systems have yet to begin to think about it at all.’


Net zero

A founding member of the UKHACC, the BMA has consistently lobbied on the threats to health posed by climate change and supports the NHS and the UK achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the shortest possible amount of time.

In recent years the association has published reports on how the health service can be made greener and more sustainable, with the BMA continuing to call on the Government to scrap subsidies on carbon-emitting fuels and to do more to reduce air pollution.

Find out more about the BMA’s work