In October 2020, the English National Health System (NHS) became the world’s first national health system to commit to become ‘carbon net zero’.
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The commitment came amid growing evidence of the health impacts of climate change and air pollution. The project aims to save thousands of lives and hospitalisations across the country.
Air pollution is linked to killer conditions like heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, and academics have linked high pollution days with hundreds of extra out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and hospital admissions for stroke and asthma.
The changing climate is leading to more frequent heatwaves and extreme weather events such as flooding, including the potential spread of infectious diseases to the UK. Almost 900 people were killed by last summer’s heatwaves while nearly 18 million patients go to a GP practice in an area that exceeds the World Health Organisation’s air pollution limit.
Scientists believe perhaps a third of new asthma cases might be avoided by cutting emissions, while Lyme Disease and encephalitis are among conditions expected to become more common as temperatures rise.
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “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. 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.”
Identifying a route to net zero emissions for a complex system as large as the NHS is challenging.
To understand how and when the NHS can reach net zero they established an English NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, reviewed nearly 600 pieces of submitted evidence and conducted extensive analysis and modelling.
The targets set are as ambitious as possible, while remaining realistic; and are supported by immediate action and a commitment to continuous monitoring, evaluation and innovation.
The NHS has set two targets:
- For the emissions it controls directly (the NHS Carbon Footprint), it will reach net zero by 2040, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2028 to 2032;
- For the emissions it can influence (the NHS Carbon Footprint Plus), it will reach net zero by 2045, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2036 to 2039.