As we approach COP21 in Paris this December, leading health authorities are recognizing climate change as one of the great public health crises of our time. So it’s quite the paradox that health care contributes much more than it should to rising global temperatures.
Every year, to simply operate, hospitals must burn through gigatons of fossil fuel energy. This doesn’t just contribute to global warming, it also creates the kind of local air pollution that kills seven million people every year. That’s more than double the toll of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
It’s a vicious and ironic cycle and, there is a pressing need for doctors, nurses, hospitals, and health systems around the world to respond to this emergency.
Many are already stepping up to the plate and forging essential, sustainable solutions. Major U.S. health systems such as Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health, and Partners Health Care are taking aggressive steps to reduce their carbon footprint and are leading not just within the health care sector, but are setting an example for private and public sector leaders across the board.
These systems, and others around the world, are implementing energy efficiency measures, investing in clean renewable energy, recycling anesthetic gases, reducing waste, and working to green the supply chain. Kaiser Permanente, for example, recently announced that it will purchase enough renewable energy to provide half of the electricity it uses in California.
Many are also educating their staff and patients on the health impacts of climate change, and some are advocating for policies, like the Obama Administration’s clean power plan. Similar initiatives are evolving in countries like Germany, England, France, Sweden, South Africa, China, Chile, and Brazil.
We ourselves created the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge, which aims to provide dynamic health care leadership in transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Many of the health systems that are working towards this goal with us have come together under the banner of the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge to pledge to protect public health from the negative effects of climate change. Systems representing more than 1,200 hospitals and health centers from every continent are committed to reducing health care carbon emissions, prepare hospitals for the impacts of extreme weather events, and leading the way to a low-carbon future.
This week, on the heels of the UN’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and as the march toward COP21 continues, the international community has an opportunity to ensure that health care is a top priority in climate change-related discussions. An important step happened today at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) 2015 Annual Meeting in New York City, where Health Care Without Harm and the Skoll Foundation announced a commitment we are making through CGI to significantly scale up the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge.
We aim to work with 10,000 hospitals and health centers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 26 million metric tons a year by 2020. That’s equivalent to taking 5.5 million cars off the road, or installing 7,000 wind turbines annually.
This is just a first step. In the coming years we will see a growing number of carbon neutral hospitals that are using 100 percent clean, renewable energy, conserve water and recycling tons of waste.
But greener hospitals won’t solve the climate crisis on their own. Ultimately, health care needs to deploy its significant moral, political, and economic influence to help lead a broader societal transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels and to a 21st century economy founded on clean, renewable energy such as solar and wind. Beyond combatting climate change, fostering this energy transition presents a golden opportunity for public health.
Building a clean energy economy can help solve both these problems at the same time. We can reduce the incidence of air-pollution induced asthma, cancer and heart disease, while simultaneously averting devastating health impacts that climate change will cause. Transitioning to a clean energy economy will also result in literally trillions of dollars in health cost savings around the world.
Leading the fight against climate change is the smart thing — and the right thing — to do for a sector of society sworn to do no harm.
Josh Karliner is Director of Global Projects for Health Care Without Harm, www.noharm.org.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in conjunction with the latter’s 2015 Annual Meeting (September 26-29 in New York City). This week, President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton convene more than 1,000 world leaders under the Annual Meeting’s theme this year — The Future of Impact — to define the next decade of addressing global challenges. To read all of the posts in the series, click here.
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