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The healthcare sector is responsible for higher CO2 emissions than aviation. Green changes require drastic acceleration

ECOLOGYThe healthcare sector is responsible for higher CO2 emissions than aviation. Green changes require drastic acceleration

The health protection sector is significantly affected by the increasing number of extreme climate events and serious air pollution, with related costs expected to rise. On the other hand, this sector also contributes to climate changes – it accounts for 4% of CO2 emissions, surpassing industries like shipping or aviation. The need for accelerating green changes in healthcare is more and more discussed, however, this requires specific actions. The newly established Green Coalition for Health, supported by almost 30 entities including the National Health Fund, is aimed at achieving this goal.

“The government recognises the need for changes in the health sector. Hospitals generate as much as 4% of CO2 emissions, which is a significant amount, even more than that generated by airplanes, so there is a lot to do.” says Anita Sowińska, Deputy Minister for Climate and Environment. “This mainly concerns emissions from energy, so it is important to insulate buildings and install photovoltaic panels. But we also need to remember that hospitals are large enterprises that generate waste, hence waste management is very crucial, especially hazardous waste. Also, patient logistics, i.e., minimizing environmental impact by reducing transport. The goal is that a patient only visits the hospital once for comprehensive tests, instead of multiple times. These are small changes, but they have a colossal impact.”

Experts stress that if the health care sector were treated as a separate country, it would be the fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter worldwide, largely due to still high consumption of fossil fuels. Findings from the UN GCNP “Green Hospitals” report indicate that the use of coal, oil, and gas to power hospitals, healthcare-related commuting, and the production and transportation of industry-related products make up 84% of all health service climate emissions. In the absence of climate action both externally and within the sector, its global CO2 emissions would reach 6 gigatonnes annually by 2050.

“Greenhouse gas emissions dramatically affect climate change, and these in turn affect our health – these dependencies are very strong,” emphasizes Dr. Agnieszka Sznyk, President of the INNOWO Institute of Innovation and Responsible Development.

These dependencies mean that in the context of climate change, the health care sector plays a double role. Climate changes are seen by scientists as the biggest health threat of the 21st century, causing, among other things, an increased risk of death from heatwaves, air pollution, or promoting the spread of infectious diseases. How we deal with these challenges largely depends on the health care sector. Hospitals and other health institutions are significantly affected by the consequences of the increasing number of extreme weather events, with financial implications among other things. On the other hand, the sector itself significantly contributes to these developments by emitting large amounts of CO2.

“Green transformation or the broader concept of sustainable development is a huge matter for the health of our society, as it not only provides a healthy environment but also efficient, effective, and sustainable processes, meaning treatment that delivers the best health effect for the patient at the right time. It also takes care of our environment, not only in terms of air quality but also in terms of reusing various packaging and minimizing our exposure to harmful factors in our environment,” says Dr. Jarosław Fedorowski, President of the Polish Federation of Hospitals.

The health care sector’s dual role in the context of health can be seen as an onus and challenge but also an opportunity to create effective solutions for society’s most urgent health needs. The newly established Green Coalition for Health aims to leverage these possibilities.

“The Green Coalition for Health is an initiative aimed at supporting the transformation towards sustainable development in the health care sector. On the one hand, we want to minimize the sector’s impact on our planet, our environment, but also we want to improve environmental health. We want to educate, demonstrate good practices and solutions, both from Poland and the rest of Europe, in order to reduce the carbon footprint of this sector,” explains Dr. Agnieszka Sznyk, the coalition’s initiator.

“I can confidently say that hospitals are one of the drivers of innovation, not only in Poland but also worldwide, in terms of scientific research, medicine, and solutions for sustainable development. We have globally recognized initiatives such as the Geneva Centre for Sustainable Development, World Hospital Federation, and various European and Polish initiatives.” Dr. Jarosław Fedorowski lists.

The Green Coalition was established thanks to the initiative of INNOWO in cooperation with the Department of Public Health of the Medical University of Warsaw and the Positive Impact Entrepreneurial Research Center of Leon Koźmiński Academy. This collaboration platform for sustainable health care development in Poland is aimed at the management of health-related institutions, representatives of local self-governments, business, and policy-makers. Over 20 medical, scientific, and business institutions have already joined. The National Health Fund, the Capital City of Warsaw, the Canadian Embassy, the Belgian Embassy, and the Dutch-Polish Chamber have taken patronage over the initiative.

“Green transformation in health care is only beginning, it is being discussed more and more loudly. Even at the climate summit, green solutions for the health care sector were touched upon,” says Dr. Agnieszka Sznyk.

Support for the sector in green transformation is essential as this process poses several challenges and obstacles. The Philips’ “Future Health Index 2023” report indicates that nearly half of the surveyed health care leaders believe that the issue is a lack of specific environmental regulations in the sector. One-third pointed to the absence of appropriate budgets. The government, however, promises European Union funds for this area.

“These funds will come from the Operational Program Infrastructure and Environment (OPIE) fund, but also from other sources, for instance, FEnIKS, so there is a huge area for growth. Hospital Directors, Managers should apply for these funds. From the discussions with Green Coalition for Health members, I understand that there is a willingness for green change.” says Anita Sowińska. “For the medical sector, the government offers various solutions. Primarily, hospitals can seek funds from the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management for green energy, and also for digitization, which helps to reduce CO2 emissions and the amount of generated waste. I encourage everyone to review these programs and apply for these funds.”

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