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10 FYi • Environment


Experts believe climate change poses a major global health threat. But what role can UK doctors play in the fight to save the planet?



HE price of ignoring the issue of climate change was spelled out in dramatic detail at a recent UK meeting of healthcare professionals. If the problem is not tackled then it will not only

bring a “global health catastrophe” but has the potential to “threaten global stability and security”. That is the view of some of the most prominent names in healthcare, including former president of the Royal College of Physicians Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Professor Anthony Costello (Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health), BMJ editor-in-chief Dr Fiona Godlee and Lord Michael Jay, chair of international health charity Merlin. The group signed a statement at the

high-level London meeting in October 2011 calling for action. It stated in no uncertain terms that complacency “will be paid in human lives” and that tackling climate change could “significantly cut rates of premature death and disability for hundreds of millions of people around the world.” The statement makes some tough demands, including calling on the EU to reduce greenhouse gases by 30 per cent by 2020 and

for an end to the building of new coal-fired power stations. At first glance, climate change may not

seem like an urgent health issue but the statement outlines how rising temperatures and weather instability will lead to more frequent and extreme weather events, loss of habitat and habitation, water and food shortages, spread of diseases, ecosystem collapse and threats to livelihood, potentially triggering mass migration and conflict within and between countries. This is echoed by a report published in The

New Scientist in 2003 that says more than 1,500 people died prematurely during the heatwave in England that year.

NHS impact In the UK, one look at the scale of NHS emissions shows its considerable environmental impact. NHS England’s carbon footprint is estimated at 21 million tonnes of CO2

equivalent (roughly the same as

that of Croatia), while the figure for NHS Scotland (estimated in 2004) is around 2.6 million tonnes – about the same as the small Caribbean island of Martinique. By comparison, greenhouse gas emissions for the UK as a

whole are 520 million tonnes. In January 2009, the NHS in England

pledged to become one of the country’s leading sustainable and low carbon organisations. It set itself the ambitious goal of meeting the government target of an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. The pledge coincided with the launch of a

new carbon reduction strategy, Saving carbon, Improving health which calls on the NHS to “set an example” for the rest of the UK. Dr David Pencheon, Director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, said: “Carbon reduction is something that needs to extend to every part of the organisation. Everyone who works for the NHS should be thinking about reducing their carbon footprint as part of their day job.”

Taking action The 2011 report acknowledged that meeting carbon targets would be a “huge challenge” for the NHS in England but goes on to identify how organisations can make changes in three main areas of energy, travel and procurement. Action points include encouraging every NHS staff member to take responsibility for carbon reduction; asking NHS organisations to create a strategic plan to develop more renewable energy sources; minimising waste through efficient procurement; and minimising staff, patient and visitor travel. Similarly, in October 2009 Scottish health

secretary Nicola Sturgeon launched the report Carbon Footprint of NHS Scotland (1990- 2004), just two months after the Climate Change Act (Scotland) 2009 came into force

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