Environmental Sustainability in Primary Care – How to reach the NHS net zero ambition

26th April 2022

In October 2020, the Greener NHS campaign launched its ambition for the NHS to become the first Net Zero health service in the world.

In this blog, North East GP and Director of SEE Sustainability, Matthew Sawyer, discusses sustainability issues facing primary care and solutions that can help practices to reduce their carbon footprint.

The total greenhouse emissions is approximately 25 million tonnes for the NHS, with primary care being responsible for around 23% or 5.75 million tonnes*.

General practice

Within general practice, approximately 60% of these emissions is considered clinical – from inhalers and medication prescribing, and 40% due to the running of the practices. These non-clinical emissions can be divided into four areas: energy; travel; business services; medical; and office goods and equipment. For general practice to reduce its emissions, each area needs its own reduction strategy.

To start, a practice can calculate its own non-clinical carbon emissions using the free online calculator at GP Carbon Calculator to identify their own largest emission hotspots.

Tackling emissions often has multiple co-benefits – whether financial through using (and wasting) less energy, and improved health for staff and patients, from active travel or through less wasted resource by improving our purchasing of goods.

Public opinion

Healthcare staff should be aware that the public are concerned too. In the Ipsos MORI poll from July 2021, the results showed that there is a high level of concern about the health impacts of climate change. The net zero NHS ambition has the public’s backing and there is broad public support for a range of measures to reduce the NHS’s carbon footprint.

The issue of the climate crisis is well recognised by healthcare and the public alike, but what about urgency to act? In Spring 2022, International Panel for Climate Change, released their 6th report and emphasised that Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions must peak no later than 2025 for the planet to stay within a 1.5 °c temperature rise. As Sarah Burch, a lead author, said “We can’t reach our broader sustainable development goals (vibrant nature, clean water, no poverty, health communities etc) if we don’t address climate change. It just won’t work.”

Speed to take action

All sectors identify both the scale of the challenge and the speed of change required.

There is a window of opportunity but it is closing fast. Through a combined global effort, the progression towards a runaway climate with soaring temperatures, passing the irreversible tipping points of ice cap loss and rising sea levels, can be avoided. Otherwise, the devastating effect on human health could be far worse than we can imagine.

*Source: Health care’s response to climate change: a carbon footprint assessment of the NHS in England, The Lancet Planetary Health, February 2021

If you’d like to share a blog, or would like to find out more about tackling sustainability in healthcare in the North East and North Cumbria, please contact Peter Lillie, Innovation Manger – Energy and Sustainability at [email protected]