UK health services make landmark pledge to achieve net zero carbon emissions

All four UK health services have united to commit to net-zero carbon emissions, Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid, has announced

  • All UK health services commit to become net-zero carbon and build climate resilience through COP26 Health Programme
  • Opportunity seized to cut global carbon footprint as health systems account for 5% of global emissions
  • 47 countries globally agree similar ambitions as part of COP26 Science and Innovation Day

All four UK health services have united to commit to net-zero carbon emissions, Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid, has announced.

This ambitious move by all nations is happening alongside 47 other countries – including the United States and Germany – who are pledging landmark commitments to develop climate-resilient, sustainable, low-carbon health systems.

Currently, health systems are substantial sources of greenhouse gas emissions – accounting for around 4.6% of the worldwide total – meaning if they were one country, health systems would be the fifth-largest emitter.

And the impacts of climate change represent the biggest public health challenge of this century, which could be felt around the world through greater water and food insecurity, extreme weather events, and an increase in infectious diseases.

These elements all threaten the capacity of health systems to prevent, adapt and respond to increased, and new, health risks.

For countries joining the UK COP26 Presidency’s Health Programme, they will ensure their health systems are resilient and able to withstand such environmental shifts to continue to deliver care for patients.

Ahead of the game

Each of the four health systems across the UK have already started work on being greener, with more-ambitious plans already underway to be well ahead of the UK Government’s commitment that the entire country will be net zero by 2050.

Javid said: “As a health community, we cannot simply sit on the sidelines – we must respond to climate change through urgent action, with global collaboration at its core.

I believe that transitioning to more-sustainable and resilient healthcare systems will deliver improved health for all our citizens now and for future generations to come

“I am delighted that all four UK health services are pledging to become net zero and it is brilliant news that dozens of countries have joined the UK in committing to reduce carbon emissions from their health systems – significantly cutting greenhouse gas output around the world.”

The UK government is investing over £280m in decarbonising the NHS estate in England through the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, with a further £1.4billion in funding confirmed for the whole public sector across this Spending Review period.

The commitments are made as part of the UK’s COP26 Presidency alongside healthcare systems across the world and in partnership with the World Health Organization, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Healthcare Without Harm, and others.

Taking the lead

Sajid Javid

The programme is a series of initiatives focusing on health sector leadership on climate change, including a focus on building climate resilient and sustainable health systems, as well as raising the voices of healthcare professionals who are advocating for stronger, more-ambitious climate action.

For the NHS in England, the move will mean:

  • Working with stakeholders to establish how best to embed issues like net zero, biodiversity, and climate resilience in the NHS Constitution for England, with a formal review in 2022 – this follows being the first health service in the world to commit to being net zero by 2045
  • A zero-emissions fleet, with the world’s-first zero-emission ambulance capable of travelling 300 miles before being charged unveiled at COP26
  • All NHS suppliers will need to publish a carbon reduction plan
  • Over £330million investment in climate-smart healthcare and low-carbon hospitals, improving energy efficiency, cutting carbon emissions, and tackling climate change
  • A new net-zero healthcare building standard will be published and be applied to the existing commitment to build 48 new hospitals before 2030
  • Ensuring health resilience is at the heart of the low-carbon transition, publishing the third UK Healthcare Adaptation Report and with the UK Health Security Agency publishing its Single Adverse Weather Plan

Scotland ‘net zero’ by 2045

NHS Scotland has committed to becoming a net-zero carbon emissions health service by 2045, with the ambition to bring this forward to 2040 after consultation on its draft NHS Scotland Climate Emergency and Sustainability Strategy.

The Government has also said that all NHS Scotland-owned buildings will use renewable heat by 2038 and it is working towards zero emissions of medical nitrous oxide by 2027.

Like NHS England, it is also looking to reduce emissions from its vehicles, with small and medium-sized vehicles to be net zero by 2025.

Other actions include:

  • Reviewing NHS Scotland supply chains and taking action to reduce their negative impacts while promoting positive effects
  • Developing a Climate Emergency and Sustainability Strategy setting out action to achieve sustainability targets
  • Preparing net-zero route maps for all 22 Scottish health boards by the end of 2022 and aligning these with climate risk assessments and adaptation plans
  • All new buildings and major refurbishments to be carbon neutral

At his speech to NHS Scotland’s Sustainability Conference this week, Scotland’s Health and Social Care Secretary, Humza Yousaf, said: “The climate emergency is not just an environmental crisis – it is also a public health crisis.

“I am determined to help the NHS cut emissions and create an environmentally and socially-sustainable health service.

I am delighted that all four UK health services are pledging to become net zero and it is brilliant news that dozens of countries have joined the UK in committing to reduce carbon emissions from their health systems – significantly cutting greenhouse gas output around the world

”Working together, we can realise the benefits for people’s health that a healthy natural and social environment can provide.

Ambitious targets for Wales

Wales is also committed to the ambition for the public sector to be collectively net zero by 2030.

By 2025, all lighting across the NHS Wales estate will be LED, reducing emissions, and this will be part of all new procurement contracts for major suppliers moving forwards.

Eluned Morgan

By 2030, the Welsh Ambulance Service will also aim for all new ambulances to be plug-in electric or low-carbon fuel, and low-carbon heating will be used in all NHS Wales new builds, with renewable energy generated on site by 2030.

Health Minister, Eluned Morgan, said: “We know how tirelessly our NHS and care staff have worked throughout the pandemic and that further winter pressures lie ahead.

“However, the climate emergency has not, and will not, go away and must be responded to with the same urgency that the pandemic has required of our sector.

This challenge has already been embraced across the NHS and in social care in Wales and I have been impressed by the dedication shown by healthcare professions who are driving this agenda forward and developing their own initiatives to help their healthcare settings run more sustainably.

The climate emergency has not, and will not, go away and must be responded to with the same urgency that the pandemic has required of our sector

Finally, in Northern Ireland a sustainable and low-carbon health system will be developed, with an assessment of greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent action plan drawn up for the health and social care system, consistent with the Northern Ireland Executive’s Green Growth strategy.

The Government will also influence supply chains to reduce their carbon emissions and will launch a continual programme of assessing the health system’s vulnerability to climate change and identifying adaptations required for resilience.

Health Minister, Robin Swann, said: “It is important that all nations, including Northern Ireland, contribute to collective efforts to tackle climate change.

“I believe that transitioning to more-sustainable and resilient healthcare systems will deliver improved health for all our citizens now and for future generations to come.”

Companies