Health care’s climate footprint is already notable - approximately 4.4% of net global emissions|Photo:Kendal on Unsplash

Paris Agreement commitments fall short on health care, systemic course correction needed: Global report

The first-of-its-kind decarbonisation pathway for the healthcare sector urges deep emission cuts from wealthiest and most polluting stakeholders.

Even if countries were to meet their Paris Agreement commitments up to 2017, health care’s annual global climate footprint would still increase— reaching more than three gigatons a year by 2050. These are the findings of a novel study which also presented pathways to bring health care emissions down to zero by 2050.

The report titled, ‘Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization: a navigational tool for achieving zero emissions with climate resilience and health equity ’ was published by Health Care Without Harm in collaboration with international policy design think tank Arup. The road map proposed by the study highlights steps for the health care sector to close the gap and notably reduce its emissions beyond the commitments made in the Paris Agreement.

Notable climate footprint

According to the report, health care’s climate footprint is already notable – approximately 4.4% of net global emissions. “If it (health care) were a country, it would be the fifth-largest climate polluter on the planet,” it says. 

Without climate action inside and outside the sector, health care’s climate emissions would more than triple by 2050. It is equal to annual emissions from 770 coal-fired power plants, the study states.

It further elaborates that fossil fuel combustion is the primary source of health care emissions. Coal, oil and gas are used in the sector to power hospitals, health care related travel, manufacturing and transport of products. All these comprise 84% of all of the healthcare sector’s climate emission.

The report points out that if commitments made by countries under the Paris Agreement are fulfilled, it would cut projected health care emission growth by 70%. But that would still leave a large deficit when it comes to a zero-emission target. 

However, even if the commitments are met, health care’s global climate footprint would still grow, reaching three gigatons a year by 2050, it noted.

Road map for health care decarbonization

The study analyses national healthcare emission data of 68 countries and has made recommendations to government, international agencies, private sector and civil society for achieving decarbonization goals. 

It recommended governments put healthcare decarbonisation into their Paris Agreement NDCs and declare the climate crisis a health emergency. It also advocates developing strong cross-sectoral climate policies to minimize the effect of climate change on public health. The Road Map proposed by the study establishes trajectories that need a steep or steady decline in emissions from the wealthiest and biggest polluting healthcare sectors.

“All countries’ health systems will need to reach zero emissions by 2050 while at the same time achieving global health goals. Many health systems in low- and middle-income countries will require support from developed economies to facilitate access to the necessary solutions during this transition,” said Sonia Roschnik, International Climate Policy Director, Health Care Without Harm, and Road Map co-author. 

For international organizations, it recommends that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopt the Road Map as one of its pathways that outline the sectoral visions for 1.5-degree climate-resilient world by 2050.

According to Dr David Nabarro, WHO COVID-19 Special Envoy and Chair of Global Health and Co-Director, IGHI Imperial College London, “COVID-19 has shown how the health sector can address huge challenges at breath-taking pace when sufficiently focused and adequately supported. An even greater effort is required to address the health impacts of climate change.”

India’s story

India’s healthcare spending in 2014 was 3.6% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and its healthcare gross emissions was 38.8 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, the study states. 

According to the report, India ranks in the top 10 amongst 68 nations in gross emissions. However, in per capita emissions, India ranks 68.

According to the Road Map, India’s ‘late peak’ trajectory requires immediate action to change course and begin implementing decarbonization strategies together with green Universal Health Care. In a progressive move that indicates some cognisance of the issue at the decision-making levels, coal-heavy state Chhattisgarh recently announced a 2050 net-zero target for its healthcare sector.

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