The Greener NHS ambition to be the first Net Zero health service in the world is a fantastic step forward in the fight to tackle the climate crisis.

With the national goal to reduce the NHS Carbon Footprint to net zero by 2040, the North East and North Cumbria aims to become England’s greenest NHS region by 2030 – less than eight years away. But how are we going to get there? And what is our region doing differently?

Peter Lillie is the Sustainability Innovation Manager at the Academic Health Science Network for the North East and North Cumbria (AHSN NENC) and Innovation SuperNetwork. He is passionate about the net zero ambition and believes strongly in a need to think outside of the box to get there.

In his piece, Peter explores why thinking about things differently is key to unlocking our sustainability potential and explains what we’re doing in the region to go further and faster.

We are seeing very real momentum within healthcare and an impetus to drive change when it comes to the NHS sustainability agenda. The NHS recognises that now is a vital moment in time and it has to make changes; after all, in England, it accounts for 4% of the country’s emissions greenhouse gas emissions[1].

But if we find the right solutions, then the ripple effect across the system will significantly boost the net zero ambition. Net zero has also been written into legislation (as of 1st July, 2022), with the NHS becoming the first health system to do so through the Health and Care Act 2022.There is a key role for innovation within the plans, and a need to work collaboratively with innovators to help meet the net zero targets.

Why is it so important?

As healthcare professionals in the North East and North Cumbria, our role is to improve the health and wellbeing of patients within our region. We talk about ‘net zero’ a lot, but what does it actually mean? It will be extremely challenging to eliminate all pollutants within the 2040 timeframe, hence the “net” in net zero is crucial. Net zero means achieving a manageable balance between the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere and those taken out.

Think about it like a bathtub filling with water – as mankind, we are filling the bathtub (atmosphere) with water (greenhouse gases) and we need to reduce the water level to ensure we don’t overfill the bath with more water than the drain (natural processes) can handle.

Furthermore, when we think of how achieving net zero will improve our lives, we tend to think purely of the environmental impact. While significant, it’s also important to recognise the many health benefits to people. Having a more sustainable NHS means we can tackle health inequalities and prevent ill-health from issues like air pollution. When people are healthier, disease is prevented, and they don’t need as much treatment or medication, which also has a positive effect on the environment because it reduces waste, reduces energy powering equipment, transport emissions and more.

What’s happening in the North East and North Cumbria?

There’s lots of great work already happening in the North East and North Cumbria to make the region the greenest and healthiest in the country by 2030. We’re looking at ways to align that work and there is a strong commitment from health leaders to improve sustainability in our regional healthcare system. For example, hospital trusts in our region are looking at initiatives to improve air quality, reduce energy, create zero-carbon buildings, eliminate environmentally harmful gases, improve biodiversity, reduce waste, switch to renewable electricity, plant trees, and much more. It is fantastic to see everything happening in the North East and North Cumbria and we’re excited about the opportunities presented through the introduction of the ICS’s Green Plan. But, despite some amazing steps forward, we have less than eight years left to reach the net zero ambition in our region; so my view is that we need to become even more disruptive.

What is the AHSN NENC’s role?

As an organisation which bridges the gap between the NHS, businesses and academia, we’re in a unique position to bring innovation and innovative thinking together. We act as a conduit between the three and look at things in different ways. Because we’re not at the coalface as such, we have the opportunity to take a step back, think outside the box and be creative across all areas. Working alongside regional partners, our approach is to start from zero footprint and work up, so that everything has the least impact possible. Making things just ‘less bad’ shouldn’t really be an option. As the NHS is a major contributor to our carbon footprint, we’re working with our industry and research partners to look at ways to break the chain and fix the problems we are creating. We have our Innovation Pathway, which offers a robust structure to best support innovation into health and social care. It champions innovation and adoption, helping innovators to identify the need and become practical and scalable.   But we recognise the need to go further and faster. It’s innovation that will drive things forward and help us reach net zero.

Can people contribute?

We all know ourselves – if it feels personal, we take more notice.

It’s important to feel positive about the difference you are making and I think looking at ways to become more environmentally friendly and improving your quality of life are equally important. For example, are you in a position to walk or cycle to work? Can you spend more time in the garden, could you have-a-go at things like home composting? Can you swap out existing toiletries for more environmentally friendly options? Instead of recycling can we wash and reuse, ice cream tubs, food containers, jam jars etc?

I would like to encourage everyone to assess what they do day-to-day as there are always ways to implement more sustainable practices, and feel positive about the change.

Peter’s top tips for thinking outside the box

  • Sometimes the biggest challenges can be the biggest opportunities.

Resource is regularly cited as a key challenge in healthcare – particularly in the current climate. On the one hand reducing costs is key; but this doesn’t always go hand in hand with reducing the NHS carbon footprint. If we’re going to meet net zero ambitions, it’s time to rip up the rulebook. We can use innovative thinking both to reduce costs and CO2 emissions. Often, it’s about the lens through which we see things  and sometimes we need to flip our thinking to see challenges as opportunities and put the environmental perspective at the forefront.

  • Recognise the amazing potential of digital transformation

One of the major steps forward through the pandemic has been the digitisation of healthcare. The older age group is often now more familiar with digital technology. GP practices are holding more online clinics for example, which make doctors more accessible and reduce travel time. If we increase awareness of the potential of digital, then we have strong ingredients for change.

  • Embrace innovative thinking

If we’re going to drive innovative, sustainable thinking in healthcare, we need to recognise the potential that innovators and businesses can bring. That’s when we see the lightbulb moments happen! To drive Net Zero in the NHS, there’s a real opportunity for experts in industry and healthcare to come together. That’s when the ideas start to flow. I like the phrase ‘what if’, and starting sentences with ‘what ifs’ instead of ‘yes buts’. We can all push ourselves to think a bit differently and turn challenges into opportunities.

  • Businesses and innovators get involved!

To change attitudes and move things forward, we need innovative businesses to come forward with their ideas. We can act as a link between industry and healthcare, bridging the gap. As long as people get on board and there’s a will to make a change, then change will happen. There’s a real opportunity for individuals, teams, NHS led, industry or academia, to move their innovations forward in the field of sustainability. To find out more about the Innovation Pathway from the AHSN NENC, follow this link.

  • Think ‘zero up’

I’d like to see a blueprint or model which starts from a ‘ zero footprint’ and guides us to achieve projects with the minimal amount of negative impact, so that everything leads back to zero. Historically this hasn’t been the case and I think presents us with a huge opportunity for change. I’m excited to continue this thinking, and to make things happen.

AHSN NENC is supporting our NHS to develop more sustainable healthcare solutions for a greener NHS and healthier North East and North Cumbria region. If you have an idea or an innovative solution to support the region’s NHS net zero plans, or would like to find out more, please get in touch with Peter at [email protected]

[1] Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service: (accessed 07.09.22)