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Changes in primary care needed to help NHS reach carbon net zero target, says report

by Awil Mohamoud
7 October 2020

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Primary care’s annual carbon footprint could be significantly reduced through investment in older buildings, making them more energy efficient, better insulated and eco-friendly, according to NHS England findings.

The entire primary care estate in England last year produced 167 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (ktCO2e), according to a report. Making older buildings more energy efficient, through introducing changes such as improved insulation, lighting and heating could save 59 ktCO2e, annually, while optimising energy consumption could save 34ktCO2e, it said.  

After looking into ways the health service can contribute to national carbon reduction efforts, the NHS has committed to becoming carbon net zero by 2040 and to reach an 80% reduction by 2028-2032. For its wider supply chain, it has set a target of net zero by 2045. 

It also made a series of recommendations to reduce the NHS’ carbon footprint, for example, reducing waste of consumable products and switching to low-carbon alternatives where possible, building energy conservation into staff training and education programmes, and finding ways to deliver care closer to home.

The expert panel, involved in the study, recognised the Covid-19 response required a rapid acceleration to digital primary care appointments, but added that data spanning a longer period is needed to ‘completely assess the full health, health equity and sustainability implications of these shifts’.

The report said: ‘The NHS will ensure that a trajectory compatible with a net zero health service is embedded in the digital transformation agenda, and work to continuously drive down residual emissions from digital services via a number of actions.’ 

This will include remote consultations and monitoring, as well as continuing the digitisation of clinical records, staff workflow and communication, it added.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on emissions from NHS facilities, the report said, as enhanced hygiene measures have increased reliance on single-use PPE to protect staff and patients. However, the data is not yet available to quantify the net impact of these effects, it added.  

‘Positive impact on health’

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, commented: ‘[This year] has been dominated by Covid-19 and is the most pressing health emergency facing us. But undoubtedly climate change poses the most profound long-term threat to the health of the nation.

‘It is not enough for the NHS to treat the problems caused by air pollution and climate change – from asthma to heart attacks and strokes – we need to play our part in tackling them at source.’

He added: ‘The NHS has already made significant progress decarbonising our care, but as the largest employer in Britain, responsible for around 4% of the nation’s carbon emissions, if this country is to succeed in its overarching climate goals the NHS has to be a major part of the solution.’

‘Responding to climate change’

Dr Nick Watts, incoming NHS chief sustainability officer, said the evidence that the climate emergency is a health emergency is overwhelming, ‘with health professionals already needing to manage its symptoms’.

‘We know that 98% of NHS staff believe the health system should be more environmentally sustainable, and even during the busiest period in NHS history, the insight, enthusiasm and commitment from those on the frontline for us to plan for the future has been exceptional.’

He added: ‘The NHS’s ambition is world-leading, and the first national commitment to deliver a net zero health service. It comes at a time when the UK is preparing to host the UN climate change summit next year, and demonstrates that every part of our societies need to play their part in reducing pollution and responding to climate change.’


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