Healthcare’s Role in the Fight Against Climate Change
With a long-term approach to sustainability, hospitals and healthcare systems can help create a healthier planet—and healthier people.
Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, droughts and wildfires can wreak havoc on the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. The resulting power outages, emergency evacuations, transportation disruptions and supply shortages prevent hospitals and healthcare systems from achieving their mission: keeping people and communities healthy.
The healthcare sector uses enough energy that even a modest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will play a significant part in the global effort to reduce emissions.
Two recent academic studies estimated the U.S. healthcare industry accounts for 8.5% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. And they found the global health sector is responsible for about 4.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with about a quarter of that amount from the American system alone.
While healthcare requires lots of power, it also carries lots of power. Hospital systems and other health organizations are economic anchors within their communities. They can drive environmentally healthy behaviors and set an example for other organizations to follow.
The threats from climate change place a serious toll on public health, which translates downstream into additional costs for healthcare. In every sense, reducing your organization’s carbon footprint fits squarely within your mission of community health and financial stability. As you engage with patients, employees and vendors, you can frame sustainability as a public-health issue and a personal-health issue. And you can implement new procedures to reduce your own environmental impact and provide a model for others in the community to follow.
We’ll be the first to recognize that implementing green initiatives at a large organization is hard. At J.P. Morgan, we’ve experienced similar challenges as we strive to become a more sustainable company.
Despite the growing pains, we believe deeply in the mission and in environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. That’s why we’ve committed $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years to address climate change.
Here are some best practices and ideas from our new Green Economy team that can help healthcare clients address sustainability along their ESG journey.
Buy from Local Vendors
The biggest share of the healthcare sector’s carbon footprint comes from the supply chain—not the emissions onsite from facilities or the electricity delivered there, but through the goods and services procured.
When it comes to protective equipment and medical supplies, the healthcare industry is reliant on products imported from overseas. While it’s probably not feasible to go entirely local, health organizations’ procurement policies can still weigh the environmental and social cost of their goods and services, in addition to bottom-line cost, when making purchases.
Goods and services aren’t exclusively about patient care and medical supplies at many health organizations. Consider the humble hospital cafeteria: Even in cities, onsite or nearby urban gardens can be excellent resources to provide fresh, healthy produce many months of the year.
Reduce Plastic Use
Many medical supplies and protective gear are made from single-use plastics, prized for their low cost and sanitary benefits. Where it makes sense, procurement policies can still favor more durable or reusable items with the goal of reducing waste. When things can’t be reused, there are often biodegradable alternatives.
Modernize Fleets, Minimize Fuel
Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly available and cost-effective. Hospitals that switch at least some of their fleet to EVs can help reduce their carbon footprint.
Innovations in telehealth can also help by reducing the number of car trips patients take to and from a physical office for routine care.
Redesign for a Green Future
Another share of the health sector’s carbon footprint comes in the energy used to heat and cool facilities. Major eco-friendly changes are expensive. A newly constructed LEED-certified hospital can cost well into nine figures. Even retrofitting older buildings with new technology can be costly. While hospitals and healthcare systems need to keep the current bottom line in mind, they can still take a long-term view on sustainability initiatives as they maintain and modernize their facilities.
A Different Type of Accounting
Many of the upgrades and changes with an eye toward sustainability can’t be measured by conventional ROI metrics. The upgrades made today to cut emissions may not pay for themselves right away.
Using cleaner forms of energy, for instance, can improve the air quality in a community. Over several years, hospitals could see a drop in the number of patients coming in with asthma or other respiratory issues. And that could lead to a drop in costly treatments.
The reverse is also true. Waiting to implement green initiatives might save hospitals and healthcare systems money today, but it could be far costlier years from now as sicker patients come into ER and ICUs.
It Builds Goodwill
Health systems are often among the largest employers in their regions, and they play a vital role in the communities they serve.
Organizations that adopt climate initiatives can set an example for others. They can show people that environmental sustainability matters—and that it has a direct effect on their health.
Being a steward of the environment takes time, money and effort. Ultimately, such actions can build goodwill in the community. When residents see their hospital go all-in on environmental issues, it shows their healthcare provider is doing everything possible to promote public health in the community.
How We Can Help
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