US Health Sector Can Take Bold Action on Climate Change

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Climate change is a public health emergency. Healthcare organizations have a moral imperative to work together and create a healthier environment for their communities.

Rod Hochman, MD

In April 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Providence announced the most ambitious climate pledge in US healthcare: to become carbon negative by 2030. We did this because we could see the impacts of climate change as drought, wildfires and extreme weather caused disasters and distress across the states we serve. With the healthcare sector accountable for an estimated 8.5% of national greenhouse gas emissions, it was time for action.

Across our family of organizations, we believe that health is a human right. Scientists have established the link between climate change and human health, and the World Health Organization has called climate change the “single biggest health threat facing humanity.” Just as we saw the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on those who are vulnerable or marginalized, these same groups of people were feeling the negative impacts of climate change more profoundly. To reduce these disparities and strengthen the basic determinants of health, we began responding to two worldwide emergencies.

REGULAR REPORTING TO OUR COMMUNITIES

When setting our carbon negative goal, we considered the span of our commitment. Leaning into our vision of health for a better world, we included our entire diverse organization: 52 hospitals, more than 900 clinics, many office buildings, long-term care and other housing locations, our university and high school and more. We also extended our environmental stewardship obligation to the joint ventures and other companies we have developed, and to our financial planning. 

We are taking bold steps toward transforming our organization, and we are reaching out to our own caregivers, the communities we serve, governmental agencies and partner organizations to amplify this vital work. Part of our public accountability is releasing an annual report, with the first edition published this Earth Day. In the report, we detail our longstanding commitment to environmental stewardship, and lay out our progress since making our pledge to become carbon negative.

Thanks to the incredible dedication of our caregivers in 2021, during the height of the pandemic we reduced our hospitals' carbon emissions by 11.7% from 2019 levels in seven key categories:

  • Natural gas
  • Volatile anesthetic agents
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Purchased electricity and steam
  • Waste
  • Business travel
  • Employee commuting

OUR BLUEPRINT FOR RESPONDING TO CLIMATE CHANGE

I’ve been saying that climate change is a public health emergency. As a sector committed to improving the health and well-being of our patients and communities, in my view it is a moral imperative that everyone in healthcare have a part in minimizing man-made contributions toward climate change. At Providence, we didn’t have a blueprint but that’s never stopped us from getting out in front of a challenge.

First was a guiding framework, WE ACT, that focuses on five key areas: Waste, Energy/water, Agriculture/Food, Chemicals and Transportation. Next came data gathering and a greenhouse gas assessment across our system. Goals include supply chain and procurement, where we want to reduce our estimated carbon footprint of 38%, directed by an environmentally preferred purchasing policy. We’re also evaluating emissions from the products manufactured, sold or delivered by our key vendors. All new construction projects will be designed to estimate and reduce embodied carbon in buildings (greenhouse gases emitted from manufacturing, transportation, and construction of building materials).

Other progress includes waste optimization across all sites, purchasing more foods from sustainable sources, while reducing food waste through composting. We are scaling best practices developed by our climate-minded clinicians, such as reducing carbon emissions from anesthetic agents and nitrous oxide. Learning from new efficiencies driven by the pandemic, we’ve reduced business travel significantly while encouraging caregivers to work remotely where feasible. Strong support for telehealth has reduced miles driven by patients and families and allowed them to get care close to home.  

Such a significant carbon negative commitment will require continued cultural transformation across our organizations. To help encourage new ways of thinking about sustainability, we’ll use the "WE ACT Data Scorecard" to set and pursue clear goals for each of the WE ACT categories. A database generates a monthly update of use, cost, and carbon emissions for each acute care hospital. In addition, we’ve created an executive performance metric with specific greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Looking beyond our own walls, we’re also examining environmental health risks in the communities and regions we serve, along with current solutions that may be in place. By cross-referencing health risks with available resources, we’ll identify where we can help.

TAKING BOLD ACTION TO SLOW THE IMPACT ON HEALTH

Scientists agree that time is of the essence, and action in our current decade will be extremely important in determining whether humans can limit global temperature rise to an amount that will be manageable. At this critical juncture, we need ambitious commitment and bold action to slow the damage and its impact on health for all.

Meaningful progress can only come by working collectively. Large scale, systemic changes are urgently needed at the organizational and individual levels. That is why I’m inviting others, especially in the healthcare sector, to partner with us on our journey to become carbon negative. Let’s share practices, innovate and accelerate this important work.

Everyone in our communities deserves to have cleaner air and water, and a stable climate. As we learn to live with COVID-19 waves, we must work together to make a significant reduction in greenhouse emissions and create a path for better health and well-being.