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NHS has a major role to play in tackling climate change

A new report by the NHS Confederation warns that the NHS, as one of the world's biggest and most resource-hungry public sector institutions, will need to act to reduce its significant contribution to carbon emissions.

The impact of climate change on the general health of the UK population will be a significant additional pressure on the NHS. A warmer, more variable climate may mean an increase in heat-related deaths, insect-borne disease and respiratory disease.

Taking the Temperature: Towards an NHS Response to Global Warming suggests that the NHS will have to work hard to reduce its energy consumption and meet the UK Energy white paper's target of reducing emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2010 and 60% by 2050. As the report reveals, the sheer scale of the NHS, with 1 million patient contacts every 36 hours, means it has a considerable carbon footprint:

  • Energy use in NHS healthcare facilities costs £400m annually and results in a net emission of around one million tonnes of carbon. Based on the government's target, the NHS will have to reduce its net emissions by at least 600,000 tonnes of CO2 by 2050.
  • 5% of all the UK's emissions from road transport are attributable to NHS-related journeys. Staff, patients and visitors travelled almost 25 billion passenger kilometres for NHS-related purposes in 2001, of which 83% were by car or van.
  • One in every 100 tonnes of domestic waste generated in the UK comes from the NHS, with the vast majority going to landfill.

Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: "The report demonstrates that the NHS is rising to the challenge - there are some great innovators out there, but there is a long way to go to meet the government's target of reducing energy emissions.

"If NHS trusts meet the target to cut energy consumption by 15% the NHS will save £50m per year on energy bills - the equivalent of building one small hospital or performing 7,000 heart bypass operations."

The report shows that very simple changes by the NHS could have a major impact:

  • If the 166 acute hospital trusts in England eliminated the estimated 90 kilotonnes of CO2 emitted each year when idle computers and screens are left on unnecessarily, the carbon emissions saved would be equivalent to those generated by flying over 26,000 people from London to New York and back.
  • If domestic and clinical waste were correctly segregated and just 40% recycled, additional emissions savings would be similar to those produced by driving an average-sized car around the equator more than 550 times.
  • By improving building design and the working environment, energy costs could be cut by a quarter and the productivity of the NHS' 1.3 million-strong workforce could increase by between 6 and 16%.

The report finds that there are plenty of examples of good practice across the UK. For example, since 2001, the menus in three Cornish hospitals have been transformed by serving increasing amounts of fresh, locally produced and organic food to patients, visitors and staff. The annual 'food miles' travelled by delivery vehicles and the carbon emissions associated with them have been cut by two-thirds.

In Cambridge through a number of initiatives, car use at Addenbrookes Hospital has fallen from 60% in 1999 to 38% in 2006, and 8% of this is car share. Improved bus services have doubled bus commuting by staff (to 25%), while 1,300 cycle parking spaces and improved cycle facilities have encouraged 25% of staff to commute by bike.

And the Barnsley Hospital Foundation NHS Trust has saved around £29,000 per year by recycling or reusing paper, furniture and clinical waste. The savings made covered the salary of a recycling officer who has since being appointed to help identify further savings.

Click here to download a copy of Taking the Temperature: Towards an NHS Response to Global Warming

NHS Conderation