António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, opened the recent COP-27 with a dire warning: “We are on a highway to climate hell,” he declared, “with our foot still on the accelerator.” Two weeks of negotiations did little to hit the brakes.
Climate change threatens to undo the past 50 years of progress in public health and global development. The increased frequency, timing, and severity of extreme weather events, such as floods, fires and droughts, has contributed to increased disease burden, transmission and death while also contributing to food and home insecurity and civil unrest.
It’s clear that the effects of climate change are burdening our already exhausted health-care system and, if we continue down this “highway to climate hell,” will only do so with greater intensity: The health-care system not only experiences the consequences of climate change but is also a major contributor to the crisis.
For example, greenhouse gas emissions from Canada’s health-care system account for nearly 5 per cent of the national total, putting it on par with some of the largest economic sectors, like aviation. Estimates suggest that emissions from the Canadian health-care system result in 23,000 disability-adjusted life years lost each year due to direct exposure to the hazardous pollutants as well as the environmental changes caused by pollution.
A closer examination of the health-care system reveals that the largest pollutant category in health care is medication, with inhalers a prime example of how medications contribute to health-care emissions. One hundred doses of a metered-dose inhaler produce the equivalent of about 50 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2e) emissions, more than double the CO2 emissions produced by a midsize car driven for 100 km.
Recognizing the health and environmental damages caused by emissions from the Canadian health-care system, it is our responsibility as health-care workers, students, patients and leaders to act and make our health-care system a more sustainable one.
It is our responsibility as health-care workers, students, patients and leaders to act and make our health-care system a more sustainable one.
Importantly, an environmentally sustainable health-care system is also a more financially sustainable one. Interventions that reduce health-care system emissions such as reducing energy use and waste production or using operating room supplies more efficiently can save more than USD $5.4 billion over five years.
We can start taking immediate actions by minimizing the use of hazardous materials and adequately managing waste. Practices to use products more efficiently can be implemented and environmental consciousness needs to be developed amongst hospital leaders and staff.
The production and transportation of health-care supplies also leaves a significant carbon footprint that hospitals can influence by using their buying power to encourage suppliers to reduce their own environmental impact.
Environmental sustainability must be at the forefront in the design of new health-care facilities and the renovation of existing ones. Ensuring that buildings are well insulated and making use of energy-efficient lighting, heating and ventilation systems are easy ways to minimize the health-care system’s impact on the environment.
Young leaders across the world are stepping up to take action and demand change. It’s no different in health care. Medical students across the country are working tirelessly to launch campaigns, lead organizations and issue policies that promote planetary health. The Ontario Medical Student Association, for example, has taken an unequivocal stance on the urgency of the current climate situation and the need for a more sustainable health-care system.
Guterres was right: We are “on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.” What will it take for us to start hitting the brakes?