NHS exceeds first major carbon reduction target

Organisations collectively reduce carbon emissions by 11%, but experts warn more needs to be done

NHS trusts are over the first major hurdle in the race to reach carbon reduction targets, helping to limit the effects of climate change.

A report from the NHS Sustainable Development Unit showed the NHS collectively reduced carbon emissions by 11% between 2007 and 2015, exceeding the 10% target set in 2009.

The wider sector, including public health and social care services, has seen a 13% overall reduction over the same period.

Meeting this first target is a great achievement for the NHS and wider system and shows that as a sector we’re taking this challenge seriously. But we know we need to do a lot more to meet future ambitions

These are notable achievements considering that health and care activity has increased by 18% since 2007.

However, more work will be needed to reach the ambitious target set out in the Climate Change Act 2008.

Multiple factors have contributed to the reduction, with carbon emissions in relation to procurement down by 16%. A large part of this is due to improvements in the footprint of pharmaceuticals through both carbon intensity of products and spend reductions.

In addition, energy emissions have reduced by 4% and travel emissions by 5%. These improvements offer more than just environmental benefits. They also represent significant cost savings and health benefits.

David Pencheon, director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, said: “Meeting this first target is a great achievement for the NHS and wider system and shows that as a sector we’re taking this challenge seriously. But we know we need to do a lot more to meet future ambitions. Our forecasts show there are a number of ways the sector can save more carbon – and we will need to find even more in the future.

Improvements in building energy use through actions such as using combined heat and power (CHP) systems and staff behaviour change programmes, have contributed to energy savings of £25m in the last year alone. In the case of transport reductions, the figures also represent a fall in the health sector’s contribution to air pollution in local communities. This improves health directly and reduces the strain on the NHS of having to treat preventable illnesses.

Reaching the 2015 goal is an important step in achieving the vision of a sustainable, resilient and low-carbon health and care system set out in the Sustainable Development Strategy for the health and care sector. However, forecasts in the report show emissions continue to be reduced at the same rate the sector will reach 30% reduction by 2050 compared with Climate Change Act target of 80%.

It’s important to remember the many opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint will also improve the health of people and save money as well

Consequently, the report also identifies additional opportunities for carbon reduction in the future which can help to get closer to the target. These include reducing waste by working better with supply chains, finding alternatives for harmful gases used in some medical devices and procedures, and helping people to make lifestyle changes that prevent ill health in the first place. Many of these opportunities will improve the health of people and save money, as well as reduce carbon emissions.

The report recommends:

  • Leaders work together and engage with people at all levels to make sure change happens
  • The financial benefits of sustainability, along with environmental and health, need to be demonstrated more clearly – the SDU will be publishing a document focusing on this in the summer
  • The new models of care being developed should consider sustainability in the design process
  • Industry and private sector partnerships can be used to help develop innovation and unlock solutions that can be shared cross the sector
  • The National Cross System Group for Sustainable Development in Health should provide a yearly report on progress to the boards of national bodies to support the continued implementation of the SDS

Pencheon said: “It’s important to remember the many opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint will also improve the health of people and save money as well.

“We know regular active travel, for example to work, improves health, reduces air pollution and other environmental impacts - but we can go further. For instance, reducing waste pharmaceuticals, using technology to improve access to services, reducing use of propellant inhalers, and using anaesthetic gases efficiently are just a few actions that will save time, money and carbon.”

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