If the global healthcare sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, a new report by Health Care Without Harm in collaboration with Arup said on Tuesday.
Establishing the first-ever estimate of healthcare's global climate footprint, the report finds healthcare's footprint is equivalent to 4.4 per cent of global net emissions (two gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent).
Fossil fuel combustion makes up well over half of health care's global climate footprint, said the report titled 'Health care's climate footprint: How the health sector contributes to the global climate crisis and opportunities for action'.
Overall, healthcare emissions are equivalent to the annual greenhouse gases produced by 514 coal-fired power plants.
The report, released simultaneously at events in London and Medellin in Colombia, makes the case for a transformation of the healthcare sector that aligns it with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
"Not only are doctors, nurses and health facilities all first responders to the impacts of climate change, but hospitals and healthcare systems paradoxically make a major contribution to the climate crisis," said Josh Karliner, International Director of Program and Strategy for Health Care Without Harm and one of the authors of the report.
"The health sector needs to transition to clean, renewable energy and deploy other primary prevention strategies to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Healthcare has to step up and do its part to avoid catastrophic climate change, which would be devastating to human health worldwide."
Hospitals, health systems and their supply chains in the US, China, and collectively the countries of the European Union, comprise more than half of healthcare's worldwide emissions.
And while vastly differing in scale, every nation's health sector directly and indirectly releases greenhouse gases as it delivers care.
Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) President Dr. Srinath Reddy said: "As human health and even survival are threatened as never before by climate change, the health sector has not only to be the conscience keeper but also the pacesetter for mitigation and adaptation."
"By adopting green technologies, reducing emissions and moving to green procurement practices, the health sector can support mitigation."
Added Poornima Prabhakaran, Deputy Director with the Centre for Environmental Health, Public Health Foundation of India: "The green paper on Healthcare's Global Climate footprint highlights the need for decoupling development in the healthcare sector from greenhouse gas emissions across the lifecycle of healthcare operations."