Healthy changes can help address climate challenge

Most of us know climate change is bad for us. What is less discussed is the causes of climate change – burning fossil fuels and overconsumption of natural resources – and how different sectors contribute.  

In Australia, our healthcare system’s carbon footprint is 7 per cent of Australia’s total emissions – the same as the entire emissions of the state of South Australia.

Health services are huge consumers of natural resources, generating vast amounts of waste, and creating a substantial carbon footprint.

We are not helpless in the face of this – there are proven solutions to reduce the impact of the healthcare sector already happening elsewhere in the world.

This was a central theme in the recent Australian visit of Dr David Pencheon.

For the past decade, Dr Pencheon has been at the helm of the Sustainable Development Unit: a unit tasked with reducing the carbon emissions of the National Health Service in England.

The NHS Sustainable Development Unit has been remarkably successful in reducing carbon emissions of the healthcare sector in the UK. Between 2007 and 2015 the NHS reduced its emissions by 11 per cent, saving GBP 1.85 billion along the way.

By reducing the spending on energy, water and waste, they have shifted the use of money to directly improving patient health and care.

For example, by supporting healthier, plant-based food options and active transport (walking, cycling and public transport) facilities for patients, staff and visitors, health services can promote health and save carbon.

A health system with greater focus on preventing illness and promoting health, the judicious use of resources, less waste and low-carbon models of care will have health, financial and environmental benefits across Australia.

If you’re a health professional, you have an ethical responsibility to get involved in working towards a healthier planet.

Join or start an initiative in your own workplace, or contact the Climate and Health Alliance, Global Green and Healthy Hospitals, or Doctors for the Environment Australia.

If you’re a community member, ask your health professional what they’re doing, and act yourself: divest, get involved in community climate action, voice your concern to your local political representative.

We need all hands on deck! There is much to do, and not much time left to do it.

Dr Kate Charlesworth is a public health doctor working in environmentally sustainable healthcare in Sydney.

Peter Sainsbury is a Sydney-based public health doctor and President of the Climate and Health Alliance.