When Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) was established in 1948, it was one of the first of its kind: a truly universal system that offered free health care “from the cradle to the grave.”
In many ways, it’s still world-leading — it’s the largest single health care system globally, the biggest employer in Europe, and arguably, at least according to a US thinktank, provides better care than the top 11 wealthiest countries, including the US, Australia, Norway, and Germany.
But 72 years on from the founding of an institution that gives the British people a greater sense of pot-clanging pride than anything else, the word “care” takes multiple meanings. It’s not just treating physical ailments, it’s about looking after the mind, the heart, and the planet too.
And when it comes to looking after the health of our planet, the NHS has continued to take its temperature — last week becoming the first national health system in the world to commit to hitting “net zero” carbon emissions.
It follows an expanding global trend of carbon-neutral pledges, in some cases led by the UK. In June last year, the UK also became the first economy in the world to legislate for a net zero target, meaning that by 2050 the UK is aiming to emit less carbon into the atmosphere than it takes out.
The NHS has pledged to achieve net zero by 2040 for all emissions under its direct control, with a plan to reduce emissions by 80% by 2028-2032. For its wider supply chain, it aims to hit net zero by 2045, alongside an ambition for an 80% reduction by 2036-2039.
There’s a profound link between climate and health.
It’s a well known fact that the climate crisis produces more extreme weather events. But that has a substantial impact on health too: whether it’s worsening air pollution from wildfires or greenhouse gases — or heatwaves, flooding, and deforestation abetting the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.
The problem is highlighted by the NHS in a report released on Oct. 1 to analyse how it can further reduce carbon, put together by an expert panel of doctors, climate scientists, staff, and patients.
Right now, the NHS accounts for approximately 4% of the UK’s entire carbon emissions. But the report found that the NHS has already cut its carbon footprint by 62% compared to the international-standard 1990 baseline, and by 26% when indirect factors are included — findings which led to the specific plan to achieve carbon targets that will lead the world.
“The evidence that the climate emergency is a health emergency is overwhelming, with health professionals already needing to manage its symptoms,” said Dr. Nick Watts, the NHS’s new chief sustainability officer.
Watts praised the enthusiasm for change on climate from NHS staff, highlighting that 98% believe the health system should be more environmentally sustainable.
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.”
The NHS has today adopted a multiyear plan to become the world's first carbon net zero national health system. Read the Net Zero report to find out more. #GreenerNHShttps://t.co/GvjnYx6SVopic.twitter.com/ltZXn8vfI9— NHS England and NHS Improvement (@NHSEngland) October 1, 2020
Ideas in the report on how to hit these targets includes developing and testing the world’s first hydrogen-electric ambulance by 2022, with a view to ensure its entire fleet releases zero-emissions a decade from that point.
It will also explore ways to reduce the number of journeys patients make to hospitals, ensure new hospitals and buildings are built in line with new emissions targets, and train staff to be more conscious of how to save energy.
“2020 has been dominated by COVID-19 and is the most pressing health emergency facing us,” said Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS. “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.”