While India has the seventh-largest absolute health sector climate footprint, it has the lowest health-related emissions per capita of all 43 nations considered in detail in this study | Photo: Iamwire.com

Global healthcare’s carbon footprint: US, China top emitter list, but India has more to lose, says study

With an aim to become a $5 trillion economy in the next few years, India is focused on riding high growth on the back of low emissions, but is decarbonising the public health sector part of the agenda? A new study says healthcare’s global climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4% of global net emissions (equivalent to emissions from 514 coal fired power plants). According to the study by NGO Health Care Without Harm, which considered 43 countries, healthcare emissions make up a varying percentage of each country’s climate footprint. India health sector produces 1.5% of the country’s total emissions, while the US health sector tops the list with 7.6%.

According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general, World Health Organization (WHO), “The world’s health sector facilities churn out CO2 through the use of significant resources and energy-hungry equipment. This is perhaps ironic — as medical professionals, our commitment is to ‘first, do no harm.’ Places of healing should be leading the way, not contributing to the burden of disease.”

As per the study, the global health care sector is a major contributor to the climate crisis. Here, too, energy and fossil fuels are at the heart of the problem. If the global health care sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet, the study says.

The report ranks the US, China, and the European Union (its 28 countries have been clubbed together to be considered as a single emitter) as the top three contributors to healthcare’s global climate footprint. The top 10 healthcare carbon emitters comprise 75% of healthcare’s total global emissions. The study says the US (at 27%, 546 MtCO2) far surpasses China (17%, 342 Mt) in terms of absolute healthcare emissions. EU contributes 12%, while India (39 MtCO2) is at par with Canada, South Korea and Brazil at 2%.

“The green paper on Healthcare’s Global Climate footprint highlights the need for decoupling development in the healthcare sector from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the lifecycle of healthcare operations,” said Poornima Prabhakaran, deputy director, Centre for Environmental Health, Public Health Foundation of India.

While India has the seventh-largest absolute health sector climate footprint, it has the lowest health-related emissions per capita of all 43 nations considered in detail in this study. While the top three emitters (the United States, China, and the European Union) are responsible for 56% of the world’s total healthcare climate footprint, India is more vulnerable to climate impacts than them, the study said. 

Experts say 10% of the world economy that healthcare represents can help drive decarbonization and lead to a healthier future. The study warns that healthcare must immediately invest in decarbonization of local and national energy systems, set a zero emissions procurement criteria, and central and state governments should establish action plans to decarbonize their health systems, Countries most responsible for the problem should lead the way.

Alex Thomas, president of the Association of Healthcare Providers – India, pointed to Chhattisgarh’s use of solar power to electrify its public health care. .”…our public and private hospitals should also pursue climate smart strategies to not only be ready at all times to combat eventualities, but also not be a contributor to climate change in any way.” he said. 

Although India’s health sector ranks the lowest in per capita emissions (0.03 metric tonnes), its global contribution is at par with countries like Australia, Canada and South Korea. Experts point out that comparably, India is more vulnerable to deadly impacts of extreme weather, which can potentially jeopardize decades of growth India has achieved in its health sector. As the government increased the health sector budget by 19% this year (Rs62,659.12-crore outlay), the highest in the past two financial years, is It not the right time for India to turn its attention to decarbonising the sector, which is on the cusp of exponential growth?

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