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At COP26, 50 countries vow to cut healthcare emissions

Fourteen of the countries have made a net zero pledge including major emitter UK, as well as climate-vulnerable nations like Fiji and Malawi. Indonesia is the only Asian country with a decarbonisation goal for healthcare.

A group of 50 countries committed to cut the carbon footprint of their health systems at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland on Tuesday.

The announcement came in response to growing evidence of the impact of climate change on people’s health, said the World Health Organization (WHO). Studies show that if healthcare were ranked as a nation, it would be the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Fourteen of these countries have pledged net zero commitments including one of the world’s top polluters. 

The United Kingdom, whose health service agency produces higher emissions than the global average for healthcare and is responsible for 5.4 per cent of the nation’s total carbon emissions, committed to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040. 

Some of the countries most vulnerable to health harms caused by climate change, such as drought-prone African states Malawi and Kenya, also pledged to decarbonise their hospitals by 2030 while low-lying island state Fiji aims to cut the carbon in its health industry by 2045. 

Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is the only Asian country that promised a net zero target for its healthcare systems by 2030.

The United States, whose health sector is responsible for 8.5 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and 27 per cent of the global health care emissions, vowed to decarbonise its healthcare system but did not make a formal net zero commitment. 

“The future of health must be built on health systems that are resilient to the impacts of epidemics, pandemics and other emergencies, but also to the impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events and the increasing burden of various diseases related to air pollution and our warming planet,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general.

The country commitments come off the back of a WHO survey, launched this week, which shows that the majority of countries now include health in their national climate plans to the Paris Agreement, but these plans often still lack detailed health actions or support mechanisms.

The future of health must be built on health systems that are resilient to the impacts of epidemics, pandemics and other emergencies, but also to the impacts of climate change…

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, World Health Organization

“These government commitments exemplify the growing global health movement for climate action. Around the world doctors, nurses, hospitals, health systems and ministries of health are reducing their climate footprint, becoming more resilient and advocating for a just transition that puts health at the centre of a decarbonised civilization,” said Josh Karliner, international director of programme and strategy of Health Care Without Harm, a non-government organisation that works to reduce the environmental footprint of health worldwide. 

Health was selected as one of three science priority areas for COP26 by the UK government, the first time in any of the climate summits. Health figured prominently in the first week of the conference, which included sessions featuring health leaders who shared their unique experiences as part of a 90-minute session called Climate-Smart Healthcare for a Healthier Planet, which aimed to reimagine the healthcare in a decarbonised, resilient, net zero world. 

It was also the first COP to have a health pavillion which offers a two-week programme of over 60 events, showcasing evidence, initiatives and solutions to maximise the health benefits of tackling climate change across regions, sectors and communities.

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