NHS Sustainability in 2021: A recap

We explore the measures taken by the NHS to reduce its carbon footprint and how it can maintain momentum in line with tough new targets

The NHS has been set a target of reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2040

The NHS is the first healthcare system in the world to set binding targets to deliver net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. In this article Hannah Callingham, sustainability team lead at ETL, looks back on the successes of the past year and explores how NHS trusts can maintain that momentum in 2021

Accelerated by the recent Delivering a Net Zero National Health Service report and the BEIS Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme grant funding, sustainability leads across the NHS have converted challenges into opportunities.

Innovation has included exploring reusable PPE, expanding virtual alternatives, and delivering decarbonisation and energy efficiency projects.

Significant progress has been made by the NHS, including it being the first healthcare system in the world to set binding targets to deliver net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 for its direct carbon footprint and by 2045 for its ‘Carbon Footprint Plus’, i.e the carbon emissions from the supply chain.

2021 is going to see a huge drive for net zero across the NHS, with many senior leaders across NHS trusts waking up to its importance and their role in achieving zero carbon by 2040

Using the recently-published Estates Returns Information Collection (ERIC) data for 2019/20, ETL has analysed the sustainability performance across NHS trusts, drawing the following conclusions:

  • 11% of total electricity used came from 100% renewable sources
  • There has been a 35% increase in green energy consumption since 2018/19
  • 45% of trusts operate waste reuse schemes – a platform or system which enables reuse of furniture, IT, medical equipment, and stationery to minimise waste, cost, and greenhouse gas emissions
  • 435 energy efficiency schemes were launched, including all large- and small-scale capital energy schemes such as the installation of Combined Heat and Power (CHP) units, LED lighting, PV solar, Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS), and any energy efficiency-focused behavioural change programmes that achieve energy and cost savings for NHS organisations. This is a 4% decrease in the number of schemes since 2018/19, but a 10% increase in capital spending on energy efficiency schemes
  • There has been a 89% reduction in coal use since 2018/19
  • The NHS has reduced waste sent to landfill by 12% since 2018/19
  • There has been a 34% increase in EV charge points from 2018/19
  • The NHS has seen a 3% increase in capital investment for new builds, presenting opportunities for low/net-zero hospital solutions

As the NHS continues to vaccinate UK citizens and accelerate the recovery from the pandemic, it is critical to reflect on the lessons learnt and plan for a sustainable future.

The following are five key actions for NHS trusts to consider in order to maintain momentum in 2021:

  • Plan: Ensure your organisational Green Plan is up to date and fit for purpose – a Heat Decarbonisation Plan can also help you build your roadmap to net zero carbon
  • Embed leadership: Establish clear leadership and sustainability governance, including appointing an executive lead for sustainability
  • Engage and Collaborate: Align with local and regional strategic partners and engage with staff to understand what they want and how they can help deliver
  • Invest in Net Zero: Switch to green energy sources using renewable tariffs and invest in on-site renewable energy. Explore strategic investment into the estate to decarbonise, such as solar PV, air and ground source heat pumps
  • Address supply chain hotspots: over 70% of the NHS carbon footprint arises from what goods and consumables are bought and what services are used. Each trust should be identifying two or three areas of action they can take right away, including reducing single-use plastics, switching to powder inhalers, and using sustainable stationery

Funding: the golden ticket

In 2021, we expect to see a further increase in energy efficiency measures as a direct result of the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme grant funding.

The UK’s reliance on gas is the major energy challenge that continues to hinder carbon reduction progress.

To facilitate the transition of our healthcare services to low- and zero-carbon heat networks, NHS trusts must utilise funding opportunities to develop a detailed solution on how to manage future electrical capacity and costs and lead the way in zero carbon for the UK.

With the Greener NHS Campaign and central NHSE/I driving the sustainability agenda across England, Green Plans will need to be in place to set out how trusts are going to meet the net-zero targets.

There will be a stronger emphasis on regional collaboration, with NHS sustainability leads networking to share ideas and collaborate to align their vision and strategy with partners

There will also be a stronger emphasis on regional collaboration, with NHS sustainability leads networking to share ideas and collaborate to align their vision and strategy with partners, such as Integrated Care Systems (ICSs).

Hannah Callingham

Fiona Daly, sustainability lead at NHS England and NHS Improvement, has said: “As we recover from the impacts of the pandemic, we need to ensure we build in new structures for success; nurturing and engaging our young people, bringing green jobs to the forefront of career choices and industry priorities, and building innovative practice into our DNA.

“The case for climate action has never been clearer. Now is the time for us to harness that learning in the health sector, connecting and collaborating to accelerate action on our sustainability programmes.”

And the time for change is now.

Over the past few years, the sustainability agenda has gained traction among public-sector organisations, businesses, and the wider population and the NHS must maintain momentum and build back better.

The UN Climate Change Conference in November will shine a light on the UK’s progress towards net-zero carbon and the NHS, as a global leader in sustainable healthcare, needs to showcase its progress.

NHS trusts must utilise funding opportunities to develop a detailed solution on how to manage future electrical capacity and costs and lead the way in zero carbon for the UK

We must prepare for the transition to a net-zero UK and engage with, and involve, interested individuals, as well as identify key players and influencers to accelerate and drive sustainability programmes.

2021 is going to see a huge drive for net zero across the NHS, with many senior leaders across NHS trusts waking up to its importance and their role in achieving zero carbon by 2040.

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