How will health systems achieve net-zero emissions?

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At the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, 13 countries pledged to aim for net-zero emissions in their health systems by 2050. Doing so will be a challenge, but there are clear strategies systems can incorporate to reach the goal, The Lancet reported Nov. 17. 

If the healthcare industry were a country, it would be the fifth-largest climate polluter on the planet, according to The Lancet. It also stands to lose a lot to the effects of climate change. The U.S. accounts for a quarter of the world's health-sector greenhouse emissions and is not one of the 13 countries that joined the commitment. The signed countries will face challenges along the way to decarbonizing their health systems, but there are tangible methods they can use to get there.

Powering healthcare with 100 percent clean, renewable energy sources will be an important part to reaching the commitment, as well as ensuring that hospital buildings and clinics are energy-efficient. Sustainable travel and transport for staff, patients and suppliers is another key method. Some health systems are also looking into providing locally farmed and produced meals that are both healthy and sustainable, simultaneously improving nutrition, giving a boost to the local economy and cutting down on emissions from imported food.

The hardest and most complex challenge these health systems will face will be decarbonizing the supply chain, which tends to be varied and global. Doing so will require cross-sector, international cooperation.

"The private sector will need to work together on this. At the same time, this shouldn't just be about health systems, but we need to think more broadly about the health impact of a net-zero economy," Andy Haines, MD, professor of environmental change and public health at the U.K.-based London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told The Lancet.

The commitment marks an important milestone in the fight against climate change and is also a novel venture.

"Nobody completely knows what a net-zero healthcare system looks like yet," said Josh Karliner, international director of program and strategy at San Francisco-based Health Care Without Harm. "We have to completely reimagine and reinvest. It will take everybody's engagement and participation. ... There's so much that everyone can do."

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