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Opinion

Opinion: Why the healthcare sector is prescribing climate action

Doctors from Europe’s leading hospitals are at COP23 to determine their part in tackling climate change. It's time to frame climate change as a public health issue, says UK health policy expert David Pencheon.

Health professionals need to be on the front line when it comes to dealing with the health effects of climate change. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, storms, heat waves, flooding, drought, cold spells, and air pollution collectively cause millions of deaths worldwide each year. There is no doubt that climate change exacerbates these weather patterns and threatens longer-term climate stability.

But it is not just these extreme weather events that threaten health: Air pollution is also very closely linked to climate change. The Lancet recently estimated that diseases caused by pollution lead to 9 million premature deaths annually. That's more than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and a stark warning that we cannot ignore.

As health professionals, we hold a privileged position in society as trusted truth brokers, and we are extremely well placed to highlight the link between climate change and health.

Effective communication from health professionals has been instrumental in tackling many public health problems in the past, most notably tobacco, HIV/AIDS, and cardiovascular disease. To date, however, little work has been done to frame climate change as a public health issue and mobilize health professionals to tackle this global problem on a local level. It is both an opportunity and the responsibility of health professionals to take a leadership role in communicating the health effects of climate change.

Health care also causes pollution

We must also not forget that the health care sector itself is also a major emitter of greenhouse gases. In the process of treating patients and healing communities, hospitals and health systems consume huge amounts of energy and resources on every continent, contributing to climate change and air pollution.

In the US alone, health care is responsible for an estimated 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the UK, although there is a long way to go, we have already taken significant steps to reduce the carbon footprint of health care. The UK health system - with the help of the National Sustainable Development Unit for Health and Social Care - has already achieved an 11 percent reduction in emissions from 2007 to 2015. We are proving that change is possible, and that making these changes not only benefits environmental and human health, it also comes with significant cost savings.

The UK health sector is now moving towards an integrated approach of addressing carbon emissions as a cornerstone of the wider challenges of sustainable development and social value, with health services as anchor organizations in their local communities.

We are very supportive of the global movement Health Care Without Harm and its "Health Care Call to Action on Climate Change." It calls on healthcare to address its own climate impacts, and to prepare for expected serious climate-change induced extreme weather impacts.

The Call has already been signed by over 100 institutions from 29 countries, representing the interests of nearly 10,000 hospitals and health centers around the world, and is a powerful message from the sector about the need for action and leadership from all parts of the wider system.

The ambitious targets agreed upon at COP21 in Paris will require every sector to contribute if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming. As health professionals, we have an obligation to first, do no harm to both the health of our communities and the planet. The health care sector has the political and economic leverage, as well as the moral obligation to lead from the front when it comes to climate change. 

David Pencheon is the director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit (England).