Commonwealth Fund Study Finds Organizations Can Reduce Their Carbon Footprint and Improve Health
If the U.S. health care system were a separate country, its $3.3 trillion GDP would give it the fifth-largest economy in the world. It is also the world’s seventh-largest producer of carbon dioxide, making it a major contributor to air pollution. The environment shapes our health system as well: recent catastrophes have shown how climate change can adversely affect the health care system’s ability to meet patients’ needs. These links suggest that health care organizations have both an opportunity and an obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and take action to prevent harm to patients that occurs during climate-related catastrophes.
There may also be a business case for the health care industry to become more energy efficient. Health Care Without Harm, an international nongovernmental organization, is working with health systems worldwide to address climate-associated health risks. Their research shows that a handful of health systems have cut carbon emissions and developed strategies to cope with extreme weather events. In the process, these institutions seem to be saving money and fulfilling the obligations that come with the health care sector’s size and mission to improve health.
The Case for Health Systems to Reduce Carbon Emissions
The U.S. health care sector emitted 655 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, which accounted for around 10 percent of the CO2 generated in the U.S. that year. If CO2 emissions are a barometer of all air pollution, then pollutants associated with the health care sector could be implicated in 10 percent (20,000) of the nearly 200,000 premature deaths attributable to air pollution annually in the United States.
In the absence of coordinated national governmental action on reducing fossil fuel emissions, greater responsibility falls on private and nongovernmental sectors. Some health care businesses have responded. Over the past decade, Kaiser Permanente, which serves 12 million Americans, has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent while increasing membership by 20 percent. Kaiser is already one of the top users of solar power in the United States, and projected its annual greenhouse gas emissions would decrease from 806,000 metric tons to 617,000 metric tons by 2017 as a result of clean-energy purchases and other environmental initiatives...