• Neil Hewitson, Partner |
3 min read

The health sector is facing the challenges of climate change

The NHS has recognised this and now wants to counteract it as part of the Greener NHS programme. What was the trigger for initiating the programme and what does the programme involve?

The UK was the first country to commit to climate neutrality by 2050. Therefore, each government department, including the Department of Health, had to develop its own strategy to implement this obligation. As a result, the “Greener NHS Programme” was initiated. This programme aims, under the central direction of Chief Sustainability Officer Nick Watts, to make all areas that the NHS can directly control or influence through supply chain management climate neutral by 2040 (e.g., reduction of fossil fuels or building optimisation of healthcare facilities). By 2045, all areas that the NHS can influence directly (e.g., waste reduction in medical products or hospital catering) are to be made climate-neutral downstream. In order to implement this ambitious goal, three-year plans were developed last year by all service providers (e.g. hospitals) and payers1 of the NHS. As a result, there are now numerous plans with activities, measures and targets that each area of the NHS is working towards, with progress reported on a quarterly basis.

How were these three-year plans developed?

Not every hospital has developed the three-year plans for itself. Rather, the plans were developed centrally by the NHS. Part of the three-year plans is also a catalogue of measures that all NHS service providers subsequently had to sign. Of course, the measures can be supplemented individually, but the core structure is controlled centrally.

How realistic is the timetable for this project with a view to 2040?

The programme is monitored in the UK by a central body, the National Audit Office. This body submitted two reports last year, stating that the three-year plans developed need to become more detailed and also that the reporting by service providers and payers needs to become more robust. In addition, the Public Accounts Committee – a special committee responsible for monitoring government spending – has called on all government departments, including the Department of Health, to increasingly adopt best practices from the private sector in order to work more effectively. So, a lot still has to happen in order to keep to the schedule.

I think we can be sceptical about achieving the 2040 target in its entirety. There are organisations such as University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCHL) that are already doing excellent work and have been addressing the issue even before it was mandated by the Department. However, this is the exception rather than the rule.

Is there a baseline against which potential progress can be measured?

It depends on what area we are talking about. Acute care providers, i.e., hospitals, tend to have more robust reporting because they have control over their buildings and can track emissions, for example. At the other end of the scale, primary care, it is more difficult. GP practices or other primary care facilities that can operate in converted residential buildings often have no idea about their own baseline emissions. Initially, there is no baseline against which potential progress can be measured.


1 In the UK, this is done through NHS Commissioning. Quality and effective health care is ensured through assessment and prioritisation of patient needs and allocation of funding.