Public Health

Why U.S. health care must take steps to cut carbon emissions

Marc Zarefsky , Contributing News Writer

The U.S. health system is responsible for 8.5% of the carbon emissions in the country.

While a bulk of those emissions can be linked to supply-chain production, the substantial impact on the environment cannot be ignored. That is why the National Academy of Medicine created the Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the U.S. Health Sector, a public-private partnership focused on addressing medicine’s environmental impact and strengthening sustainability efforts.

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“The health community has to be involved,” said Victor Dzau, MD, president of the National Academy of Medicine. “We’re the trusted professionals. We need to tell our patients and the public the message that climate change is really hurting people.”

Dr. Dzau talked about how the effort—dubbed the Climate Collaborative for short—is working to combat the health care community’s impact on climate change and what hospitals and health systems can do to help in a recent episode of “AMA Update.”

When the Climate Collaborative formed in 2021, it was important that a wide variety of industries and roles were represented, said Dr. Dzau, who is a co-chair of the effort. His fellow co-chairs include:

  • Adm. Rachel L. Levine, MD, the assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Andrew Witty, the CEO of UnitedHealth Group.
  • George Barrett, the former CEO of Cardinal Health.

“The whole idea of the collaborative is to bring together every single player to the table,” said Dr. Dzau, including “hospitals, health care systems, doctors and nurses, educators … supply chain, the private industry, the pharmaceutical [industry], and then, importantly, the government.”

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The Climate Collaborative is aiming for a 50% reduction in total carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. The AMA reiterated those same goals when it declared climate change a public health crisis last year.

To identify how to best meet those goals, the Climate Collaborative established four working groups to focus on specific actions related to care delivery, education, supply chain and policy.

“The whole idea is to create policies and incentives to help get things done,” Dr. Dzau said. “That’s what the collaborative does. It works with the government, works with others to say: Here are the different things that you can do to decarbonize, and here are the opportunities to get tax credits and to get funding for it.”

The Climate Collaborative website offers a list of key actions organizations can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a guide on carbon accounting. Learn more about the decarbonization steps recommended in AMA policy adopted last year.

Dr. Dzau said the Climate Collaborative hopes to expand the reach of its work across the country in early 2024 to help inspire more health care organizations to step forward and help combat climate change.

“The next big thing is to start a national movement,” Dr. Dzau said, “a movement by which anybody who can join can join to start learning about this, start working toward it, and eventually, they can scale to a level where they can really make a difference.”

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