A major report setting out the steps necessary to decarbonise the NHS has been recently published – detailed in the plan are a developed gradual approach to target net carbon zero by 2040.

Commitments made in Delivering an ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service are: for medicine supply chains to reach net zero by the end of this decade, the road testing of the world’s first zero-emission ambulance by 2022 with a further 2032 target for the complete fleet, the construction of 40 new ‘net zero hospitals’, a shift to digitalisation of care, the transformation of medical devices (such as inhalers) towards greener alternatives, and by promoting better staff practices.

With the delivery of these changes in operations the target is that emissions controlled directly by the NHS will reach net zero by 2040, and for an earlier 80% reduction by 2028 to 2032. Although as the report said roughly the carbon emission profile of Croatia still currently needs to be removed to reach these ambitious targets.

But the report said that enormous progress has already been made over previous years with a 62% decline in the NHS’s carbon footprint, from levels estimated in 1990, and in 2019/2020 the removal of 200,000 single-use plastic items and the reduction in the reliance on office paper by digitalisation.

Sir Simon Stevens NHS Chief Executive, welcomed these plans from a stance of improving community health, and said: “It is not enough for the NHS to treat the problems caused by air pollution and climate change – from asthma to heart attacks and strokes – we need to play our part in tackling them at source”.

Plans of this scale are the first of their kind, and would make the NHS the first net zero health service, with Dr Nick Watts, incoming NHS Chief Sustainability Officer, saying that: “The NHS’s ambition is world-leading, and the first national commitment to deliver a net zero health service… and demonstrates that every part of our societies need to play their part in reducing pollution and responding to climate change”.

“Climate change is a health emergency”

Medical professionals worldwide are witnessing the implications that a changing climate and mounting air pollution are having on their localised public’s health – for example, an American study, published last month, highlighted the mental trauma and respiratory impact, caused by increasingly routine wild-fires. Globally the WHO predicted in 2018 that between 2030 and 2050, 250,000 additional deaths per year will be caused by malnutrition, heat stress, malaria, and diarrhoea.

In similar terms as Sir Stevens, Professor Donal O’Donoghue, Royal College of Physicians registrar said that: “This report clearly lays out what we collectively in the health care system can do now to protect lives in the future. Climate change is a health emergency and we must act now to prevent it becoming a catastrophe”.

As the climate changes in the UK in terms of long-summer heatwaves, research suggests that there will be profound future consequences for public health. As evidenced by a 2017 report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which projected that heat-related deaths could more than double to 4,000+ per year by 2050.

Figures also show that air pollution, according to a 2018 study by King’s College London, is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 28,000 to 36,000 people per year. To which the NHS net zero plan highlighted as having a particular racial, and possibly socio-economic, profile – as elevated risk for developing health conditions related to air pollution disproportionately affect Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

These points were referenced by Kay Boycott, CEO of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, who said: “Climate change poses a huge threat to lung health; with dangerous levels of pollution and extremes in hot and cold weather which can be deadly for people with lung conditions causing symptoms to flare up and putting lives at risk”.

Further instilling the benefits for public health by reaching these targets the NHS net zero report estimated that this individual plan would result with ‘5,770 lives saved per year from reductions in air pollution’, and ‘38,400 lives saved per year from increased levels of physical activity’.