Nicky Philpott: Ending the NHS’s contribution to the climate emergency

I met a climate refugee the other day—a woman who had lost her home in the wildfires in California. She was forced to leave her community because she could no longer breathe. And even though I spend much of my day thinking about the impact of the climate emergency on our health and our planet, this conversation shocked me. Perhaps because she was in fact lucky. She had resources to enable her to flee, a place to go to, welcoming friends and family. 

With all of the “immediate” issues that we’re each currently dealing with, exacerbated by the covid-19 crisis, it’s sometimes uncomfortable, on top of all of that, to think about the stark impact that we as humans are having on our planet. It is a devastating impact. It’s both close to home and far away. And it is unavoidable. We must deal with it, with planned changes such as rapid and planned decarbonisation. Only that will secure our health and wellbeing.

Public opinion is shifting despite the other challenges we face. A recent poll of those chosen for the UK’s climate assembly (a representative sample of the population) showed that 79% support the idea of post-covid economic recovery measures which also curb carbon emissions.

Institutions are responding too. Today the UK’s largest public sector employer, and largest public sector emitter, NHS England has shown how seriously it takes the threat of climate change, by announcing an ambition to reach net zero by 2045. 

In anticipation of today’s announcement, I re-read “Health Care’s Climate Footprint, which tells it straight: “if the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter on the planet.” So even as healthcare is saving lives and alleviating suffering, it is contributing to the problem and increasing its own burden by driving climate change and environmental degradation.

Unprecedented is a word that has perhaps been overused in the last few months, but the announcement today is unprecedented.

NHS England is the first national health system to announce its ambition to get to net zerototallyby 2045, and with significant, rapid reductions along the way. This is something to rejoice in, and a fantastic example to set in the year before the UK will host the COP26 international climate conference in Glasgow. There, five years after the Paris agreement, the world will compare the plans each of our countries have made to get to next zero by 2050we will scrutinize them, expecting leadership, and high ambition. This will sit very nicely on this world stage.

This is something that all organisations, and institutions should be doing. And if they didn’t think so before, perhaps they will think twice now. Day after day we hear similar announcements, and similar warnings, but I believe that this one will have a wider influence. People have always listened to health professionals, and if anything, the public appreciate the importance of what they have to say now more than everin an age when people have not only become aware of the role of the Chief Medical Officer, but would probably recognise him walking down the street—with a mask on.

Our members are sending the same message; most have divested, many have declared a climate emergency. And now, following NHS England’s lead, we will work together to make practical changes. To do so we’ll need to open up conversations in different specialisms, what does net zero gastroenterology look like? Nephrology? Psychiatry? Paediatrics? What does this look like in primary care and social care?

There are a lot of questions to answer and some of them can only be answered by health professionals. We hope to work with those already willing, and to encourage those who are not. Because everything will change, we just need to work together and work out how. 

Nicky Philpott is Director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.

The BMJ is a member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. To hear more from the Alliance follow them on Twitter @UKHealthClimate.

Competing interest: Nicky Philpott and the Alliance Secretariat are officially employees of the BMJ.