The challenges and opportunities of reaching net zero in the health service
Reported by Katharine Davis, PhD student in Biochemistry, University of Cambridge
In December 2022, Dr Nick Watts, Chief Sustainability Officer for NHS England, met with the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum to discuss how the NHS can approach achieving net zero carbon emissions. Policy experts and cross-disciplinary representatives from academia came together at the seminar for a round-table discussion, covering the successes so far and the future challenges involved in meeting sustainability targets in healthcare.
Achieving Net Zero in the NHS
A report, “Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service”, was published in 2020, reinforcing the commitment of the NHS to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2040. In addition to highlighting areas of the health service contributing to a carbon footprint and plans to mitigate this, a key message from the report was the motivation of the NHS to respond not only to immediate pressures, including the coronavirus pandemic, but also, at the same time, to the longer-term challenge of climate change. While the necessity of achieving net zero for the current and future welfare of our planet cannot be refuted, the main question presented through the December forum was how this can be achieved while maintaining the highest standard of patient care in a healthcare system that is unquestionably overstretched. Participants discussed topics including:
Examples of movements already in place
The carbon cost of delivering medication both within the NHS and to patients is being tackled through the use of drones and electric goods vehicles. Small grants were also made available for clinicians to implement ideas that would both directly tackle climate change and improve patient care in their local practices.
There is no escaping a need for capital in order to achieve sustainability targets, but at least a portion of the NHS emissions profile can be acted upon using existing resources. Financially, it is worth the NHS investing in low carbon intervention measures, as the rate of return of investment is favourable.
The role of collaboration
Developing and implementing a successful net zero strategy in the NHS will rely on collaboration with academics and industry experts. A recent successful example comes from asthma care; research into the contribution of inhalers to greenhouse gas emissions has resulted in a national move, where clinically appropriate and supported by the patient, towards prescribing inhalers with the lowest carbon footprint. There is an opportunity to develop low-carbon healthcare innovation, which could present an opportunity for collaboration with small businesses and university academics.
The role of technology
While new technologies could be considered to feature as part of the digital revolution, this should only be implemented if the technology is safe, will benefit patient care, and will be a movement supported by patients. For any new devices, an appropriate route of manufacture and disposal would need to be enforced to ensure circularisation of non-renewable resources.
The role of suppliers
The role of the carbon footprint of NHS suppliers is a potential concern. Looking towards the future, the NHS will limit collaboration to suppliers that meet or exceed its sustainability commitments. This is an important move towards achieving sustainability goals, but not at the expense of receiving essential care components without an alternative supplier.
Achieving a net-zero healthcare system is a challenge to be tackled globally. While there is enthusiasm among clinicians for creating a sustainable healthcare system, one of the main challenges for the NHS will be in mobilising and coordinating their million-strong workforce towards achieving net zero. This challenge comes in part from a lack of expertise in sustainable healthcare measures, which could be mitigated through external academic collaboration.