Health service requires more help to become sustainable

by Latifa Patel

The NHS needs more support if it is to meet the Government’s net zero target

Location: UK
Published: Friday 4 November 2022
Latifa Patel

Progress in decreasing carbon emissions within the NHS appears to be stalling. It is crucial that UK Governments support the NHS to ensure we keep up with the progress we have made and help us achieve the net zero target.  

Climate change and air pollution poses a huge threat to the health of the population. As major contributors to the UK’s carbon emissions, the NHS has a responsibility to reduce its carbon footprint and help to safeguard the health of our patients.

The pandemic caused major interruptions to progress in this area whilst the NHS stepped up to prioritise protecting the immediate health of the population and service delivery. Therefore, UK Governments now need to increase their support for the NHS to help achieve the net zero targets they have set.

The NHS has made some good progress in reducing carbon emissions, with decreases being seen between 2016 and 2019. However, new BMA research found that this significantly slowed down after 2019. It is important that we don’t lose momentum and reductions in emissions continue. Other findings from the research include only small improvements being made in reducing energy consumption from fossil fuels within the NHS and petrol/diesel still being the main fuel for the NHS fleet.

The BMA found that most NHS organisations have not received any funding support for implementing sustainability practices. Given the huge pressures NHS organisations are under and the increasing energy costs, major improvements may not happen if specific funding is not made available by UK governments.

We need dedicated staff in house to drive these initiatives – something that can’t be gained without funding. Practical guidance tools on implementing simple sustainability techniques will also be hugely beneficial to those organisations struggling.

Significant variation in carbon monitoring within the NHS was also found by the BMA, with many organisations not recording their emissions. Accurate and consistent carbon monitoring by all NHS organisations is crucial to monitoring progress in achieving targets. The NHS needs national guidance on carbon monitoring or support to train staff in these skills.

With COP27 around the corner, and with the worldwide impact of climate change that we have seen the last few years, it remains vital that we engage everyone in these issues – healthcare staff, patients, stakeholders. We need to know the impact of climate change on the local populations and what solutions we can contribute to. Good practice examples from those NHS organisations further along in this area should be shared widely.  

We also know just how important this is to our members and we remain committed to fighting for net zero and holding our Government to account, on behalf of them.

As health professionals, we play a role in reducing the NHS carbon footprint. We are important advocates for change. All healthcare workers should be empowered to raise concerns regarding poor practice and supported to make greener choices. 

For more information please see what else the BMA and UK Health Alliance on Climate Change are doing in this area. 

Dr Latifa Patel is BMA representative body chair