While COVID-19 has pushed the health care sector to its limits, another public health emergency is strengthening. This time, the health sector itself is part of the problem. But now, with help from a new White House initiative, the sector can be part of the solution.
The other health emergency, of course, is the climate crisis. The latest U.N. report affirms that fossil fuel combustion is heating up the planet, causing deadly heat waves, floods, wildfires, and disease outbreaks.
The primary cause of climate change — air pollution from burning fossil fuels — is among the leading causes of illness and premature death. A Harvard School of Public Health report found that 8 million people worldwide died prematurely from fossil fuel pollution in 2018 — far more than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
Ironically, the U.S. health care sector is a major contributor to these problems, producing 8.5% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, and accounting for 27% of the global health care footprint. Globally, if the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The Biden administration is committed to changing that. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra recently announced the new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, which will help the sector both reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and become more resilient to climate change. The office will focus on communities that have been disproportionately impacted by climate hazards and ensure investments in resilience reduce health impacts and address health disparities.
This is good news on many fronts. Reducing the health sector’s contribution to air pollution will immediately reduce suffering from asthma and other respiratory diseases. It will also reduce health care costs and take some of the pressure off of overburdened systems. At the same time, a sustainable health care sector will stimulate innovation across the supply chain for low-carbon technologies and alternatives to petro-plastics, while boosting demand for renewable energy.
Becerra says the new office may deploy a range of strategies — including regulations — to reduce the health care sector’s emissions. Predictably, this announcement has drawn some resistance, with the argument that addressing health care’s climate impact may compromise patient care and cost too much money for already strapped hospital systems. But objections that focus on the difficulty and cost of cutting emissions are short-sighted.
A number of pioneering health care providers have already proven the sector can dramatically reduce emissions while saving money. Health Care Without Harm’s U.S. Health Care Climate Council, representing 19 health systems in 39 states, is leading the way.
Ascension, one of the leading nonprofit and Catholic health systems in the United States, cut its energy use by 29% from 2008 to 2018, saving nearly $62 million and reducing 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions across 141 health care facilities.
MEDCOM, with 29 Army medical facilities, reported savings of $23 million from energy efficiency and other sustainability measures in 2020.
Wisconsin-based Gundersen Health System cut its energy use by more than half in the last decade, saving $3 million per year. To achieve that goal, Gundersen installed various forms of renewable energy in its facilities, including solar, wind and geothermal. In 2014, Gundersen became the first U.S. health system to attain energy independence by producing more energy than it consumed.
Gundersen is not alone. As of 2019, Health Care Climate Council members were collectively generating or procuring more than 1 million megawatt hours of renewable energy each year.
Hospitals and health systems are also leveraging their purchasing power and community investment to build climate resilience. Seattle Children’s Hospital helps plant native conifer trees in under-resourced areas that lack tree canopy, reducing the deadly urban heat island effect. And, as a founding member of the Cleveland Climate Action Fund, Cleveland Clinic invested in stormwater management, clean energy, local food production, and active transportation.
The transition to a sustainable health care sector is already underway, and the new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity can accelerate the shift. Health care systems should welcome this change — which is good for patients, the planet, and the bottom line.
Gary Cohen has been a pioneer in the environmental health movement for more than 35 years. He has helped build coalitions and networks globally to address health impacts related to climate change and toxic chemical exposure. Cohen is founder of Health Care Without Harm, created in 1996 to help transform the health care sector to be environmentally sustainable and support the health and climate resilience of the communities they serve. Since its inception, the nonprofit has grown to lead and partner in groundbreaking initiatives in more than 72 countries. Cohen was awarded the Champion of Change Award for Climate Change and Public Health by the White House in 2013. In 2015, Cohen received a MacArthur Fellowship and a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.