The healthcare sector accounts for around 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of France, Germany and Brazil combined. Medical staff and the healthcare industry are gradually embracing the objective of reducing the sector’s contribution to global warming. But the task remains daunting. The Down to Earth team takes a closer look.
While the concept of environmental health is broadly acknowledged, the carbon footprint of healthcare is not always obvious to the general public. Yet this sector accounts for 8 percent of annual CO2 emissions in France, according to the latest calculations by think tank The Shift Project.
Half of these emissions come from two sectors: medical devices and the pharmaceutical industry. However, home nurses often collect piles of unused needles, plasters and medicines at their patients’ home due to unreasonable prescriptions and delivery. “We’re realising that there’s a phenomenal waste and environmental cost,” says Muriel Boutet, a private practice nurse based in the Paris region.
In operating theatres, people are rolling up their sleeves to reduce the environmental footprint of surgery. “A single operation creates more waste than a family of four does in a week,” explains Dr Sonia Delaporte-Cerceau, head of the ambulatory surgery unit at the Armand-Trousseau AP-HP paediatric hospital. In addition to setting up a sorting and sterilisation system to reuse surgical instruments, her department now uses less polluting anaesthetic gases. This is a significant step forward, since some halogenated gases have a global warming potential around 2,500 times greater than CO2.
More and more hospitals are sending their potentially infectious medical waste for recycling. At its warehouse on the outskirts of Lille, the company Cosmolys sanitises medical waste and separates its various components before redirecting them to packaging manufacturers. This move towards the circular economy demonstrates a willingness to take action, which needs to be backed up by far-reaching measures – such as the thermal renovation of hospitals and the relocation of pharmaceutical production – if France is to meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the healthcare sector by 5 percent a year until 2050.