Doctors must lead fight against climate change

by Tim Tonkin

Doctors and the NHS must lead by example if the global health emergency posed by climate change is to be addressed, the BMA has warned.

Location: UK International
Published: Friday 30 October 2020
climate change

The health service has a responsibility to its patients to reduce its own carbon footprint and to strive for net zero emissions, if it is to take a leading role in combatting the harmful effects of climate change, according to a paper published today by the association.

The report, Climate change and sustainability: The health service and net zero, states that with the NHS contributing up to 5 per cent of the UK’s total carbon emissions, increased sustainability and changes to working practices are vital if the health of future generations is to be protected.

It adds that failure to take action now could see an additional 250,000 deaths a year between 2030 and 2050 due to rising sea levels and global temperatures which in turn could result in flooding, famine, displacement of populations and the spread of infectious disease.

It says: ‘Climate change will be one of the defining public health challenges of the 21st century. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global warming rising above 1.5 degree Celsius could have disastrous consequences for millions of people’s jobs, ways of life and health.

‘We can already see the health impacts of climate change and pollutants on a local level, with

around 40,000 deaths directly attributed to air pollution in the UK alone.

‘Given the grave threat that climate change poses to public health, the health service has a responsibility to reduce its emissions and help to safeguard the health of future generations.’

Pollution fears

A survey of BMA members conducted last year found that 87 per cent said they were concerned by the threat climate change poses to public health, while 83 per cent expressed fears about the impact of air pollution.

Outlined within the report are nine recommendations aimed at the Government, trusts and health boards, designed to build upon existing sustainability measures which have seen the NHS reduce its carbon footprint by nearly 20 per cent since 2007.

These include a requirement that all trusts and health boards publish reports on their carbon footprints and establish targets for reducing single-use plastic and increasing use of reusable medical equipment.

It further adds that trusts should target more of their capital funding towards to improving the environmental efficiency and sustainability of their estates, and to appoint sustainability champions to empower and support staff into making sustainable choices.

The report also urges UK governments should introduce dedicated funding to support NHS sites in introducing electric vehicles.

The report says: ‘Tackling climate change and reducing health service emissions will help to safeguard the health and well-being of the UK, both now and in generations to come.

‘Achieving net zero carbon emissions will require fundamental societal change and unprecedented action from governments, businesses and the public. The health service has an important role to play in reducing its emissions, showing leadership, and advocating for change.

‘The sooner we as a society achieve net zero the better it is for health.’