Delinking healthcare energy from climate emissions

Climate change is the biggest health threat the world faces this century and the health sector contributes to the problem. Healthcare makes up more than 4.4% of net global climate emissions, with half of the emissions related to energy. If the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet. And the emissions are growing.

Solar Panels in foreground in the background the sun is setting behind a windfarmThe United States health sector is the world’s number one emitter in both absolute and per capita terms, producing 57 times more emissions per person than India.1

Fossil fuel combustion – coal, gas and oil -- are the dominant source of health care emissions. They are also the main drivers of outdoor air pollution. US energy data shows heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC)  are major energy consumers in healthcare systems, accounting for 63% of total energy consumed.2 Radiology, surgery, intensive care and other diagnostic and treatment activities, the transport of supply and patients, all need efficient, uninterrupted power.

In the pursuit of universal health coverage decarbonization is essential and innovative solutions are needed. These can range from the installation of distributed energy resources, such as onsite systems using solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on hospital roofs, renewable energy powered hybrid minigrids covering wider areas and communities, new technology for thermal heating and cooling, energy efficient buildings and medical devices, electric vehicles in transport and the decarbonization of the grid, which supplies hospitals and supply chain manufacturers with electricity.

Renewable energy minigrid systems also help build resilience in the event of a power failure in the main grid. They are viable options for electrification in remote communities that have no grid supply or poor quality of supply, thus contributing to health equity.  These systems are also modular and can be scaled up to meet any future increase in demand. The global energy crisis, with gas and coal prices accounting for 90% of the upward pressure on electricity costs around the world,3 will significantly impact healthcare financially. Savings through hospital energy green sustainability projects can alleviate budgetary pressures .

Work on decarbonising healthcare is an emerging area. The National Health Service in England has committed to reducing its carbon footprint by reaching net zero by 2040, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2028 to 2032. Initiatives include the construction of 40 new ‘net zero hospitals’ as part of the government’s Health Infrastructure Plan.4

A rapid and just transition towards decarbonisation in all areas of the economy is needed. The health sector has an important role to play and it must act now. Ultimately the health sector must run on 100% renewables for the health of patients and the planet.

Dr Reihana Mohideen is a Principal Advisor at the Nossal Institute for Global Health. Reihana's research focuses on  Social Implications of Technology: Energy, Infrastructure and Health; Just Transition; Gender Equality and Social Inclusion

1Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization. Health Care Without Harm, April 2021

2Bawaneh, K.; Ghazi Nezami, F.; Rasheduzzaman, M.; Deken, B. Energy Consumption Analysis and Characterization of Healthcare Facilities in the United States. Energies 2019, 12, 3775.

3World Energy Outlook 2022, IEA, Paris

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Dr Reihana Mohideen