Climate Change: Whose Problem Is It Anyway?


Oct 1, 2021

Climate change has assumed a magnitude that is certain to cause health effects among large sections of the global population, and healthcare organizations are at the forefront of the fightback. However, there is another dimension to the relationship between healthcare and climate change that is only now gaining traction — the contribution of the healthcare industry to the national carbon footprint of the United States. Does this pose a problem? We would think yes, and there is still time for change.
Studies conducted at the national level indicate that while the environmental emergency we face is exacerbated by rising temperatures and sea levels, dirtier air and water, healthcare is very much a contributor to the problem. Reliable estimates indicate that the share of the healthcare industry as a component of nationwide emissions is anywhere between 8 and 9.8 percent. When translated into carbon dioxide equivalents, this emissions percentage reveals a figure of 655 million metric tons of CO2e from healthcare alone.
While the numbers convey a dire situation, the nature of the problem is also such that healthcare organizations now have an opportunity to take the lead in a transformative period of decarbonization. If carried out with a strong sense of responsibility, healthcare’s role could lead to a positive ripple effect across a number of allied sectors. And there’s ample evidence to suggest that healthcare organizations have, and continue to be, constructive changemakers. Some prominent examples include Kaiser Permanente and the Mayo Clinic, both of which have launched comprehensive sustainability roadmaps with recent records of significant reductions in their carbon footprint. Kaiser Permanente‘s operational emissions have fallen by 29% since 2008; the Mayo Clinic‘s energy consumption has decreased by 20% since 2020 alone.
These instances show how the coupling of climate tech and healthcare systems can improve the performance of organizations and validate their identity as committed, sustainable actors. At its core, climate tech provides a way to operationalize accountability, while offering accessible and rigorous reviews of climate actions. One of the most simple yet significant ways to begin moving in this direction involves understanding the emissions profiles of hospitals. These offer useful insight into where a facility stands vis-a-vis its peers and national targets, and sensitize organizations to the factors that guide climate-conscious investors.
The world of emissions profiles and reductions may seem complex at first glance, but the actions required often start off with the smallest of questions — How many lightbulbs does a hospital use? What are the hours of peak power usage? How much waste does the emergency room generate? Does the hospital café use plastic plates and cups? While these and other similar questions address the seemingly mundane side of healthcare systems, they account for a much larger proportion of emissions than meets the eye. And the answer is surprisingly straightforward — it lies in adopting a tech-positive, data-driven design to reducing environmental impacts.
It has now become important for organizations to understand their carbon numbers and formulate definitive aims. Nowhere is this more pressing than in healthcare. There is no Plan B. Your time to act is now.
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