NHS looks set to fail on carbon reduction challenge

Action needed as report reveals NHS is only 50% towards its target for CO2 reduction

Increasing demand on services and the availability of innovative new medical equipment means the NHS will miss its targets for carbon reduction, new figures show.

The Climate Change Act 2008 and subsequent legislation demand a 34% reduction in overall emissions by 2020 from a 1990 baseline. In the shorter term, the Government has set a target of 10% by 2015 for public sector bodies.

To achieve the level of carbon reduction required in the future requires a concerted effort by all NHS organisations

But, the recently-published NHS England Carbon Footprint 2012 report reveals the NHS has achieved a drop of just 5.4% since 1990, putting it just halfway towards its 2015 objective.

The eight-page publication, drawn up by the NHS Sustainable Development Unit (SDU), puts the shortfall down to an increase in general activity and the adoption of technologies that improve patient outcomes, but demand high levels of power.

And, while it welcomes evidence that for the first time emissions have stopped increasing and are beginning to level off, it predicts that, without further action, the NHS is on track to miss its 2020 target, achieving just a 9.8% reduction from 1990 levels – 24.2% lower than required.

Overall, the NHS is producing 20 million tonnes of CO2 every year and spending £600m in energy costs – representing 3% of the total carbon emissions in the UK.

A breakdown shows 65% of the current carbon emissions are down to procurement activity, with 19% from building energy use and 16% from travel. Within procurement, most of the CO2 comes from pharmaceuticals, followed by business services and medical instruments and equipment.

The document states that, despite improvements in NHS building efficiency during 2010/11, the NHS itself is doing little to bring about a reduction and is instead relying on the adoption of energy-efficient equipment such as combined heat and power and low-energy lighting. Its publication has been followed up by the release of the Health Check 2012 , which goes into more detail about the opportunities for the future and aims to help address the forecasted shortfall.

It is good news that during 2010, the rising NHS carbon footprint levelled off and that the carbon intensity of the NHS reduced to a third of its 1990 level. However, the NHS still faces a challenge if it is going to reduce emissions by 10% by 2015

It states: “It is worth noting that many NHS organisations have been cutting emissions significantly and have been making financial savings in the process. Unfortunately, the effects of this good work have been lessened by other organisations not making such good progress. To achieve the level of carbon reduction required in the future requires a concerted effort by all NHS organisations.”

It describes the NHS’s ability to meet the targets as ‘a challenge’, but says it can be achieved if trusts take action immediately, adding: “It is good news that during 2010, the rising NHS carbon footprint levelled off and that the carbon intensity of the NHS reduced to a third of its 1990 level. However, the NHS still faces a challenge if it is going to reduce emissions by 10% by 2015, and meet the legal requirements set in the Climate Change Act .

“Even though this is now more achievable, it needs close monitoring and delivery at a national, regional and local level. Sustainability needs individual and system-wide action to be aligned. It needs to be progressed across boundaries, cultures and organisations. Sustainability needs to be integrated into discussions and decisions with staff, patients and the public at clinical, service and organisational levels to ensure it becomes a core principle of the NHS.”

But the Environment Agency is warning that, even though the NHS looks set to fail to meet the 2020 targets, it should actually be doing more and aiming for a reduction that is much greater than that being demanded by the Government and the EU.

A spokesman said: “If the NHS wants to lead the public sector in addressing the challenge of climate change, the strategy needs to be more focused and challenging. It needs to define what success looks like, and set ambitious and unambiguous targets that will lead towards the NHS’s own target of 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

To demonstrate its commitment and ambition, the NHS should aim to achieve the Government’s target to reduce carbon emissions by 30% by 2015, rather than 2020

“To demonstrate its commitment and ambition, the NHS should aim to achieve the Government’s target to reduce carbon emissions by 30% by 2015, rather than 2020. The strategy needs to focus on priority areas, initially those which it can more easily influence, that will deliver against these targets, such as minimising waste, increasing building efficiency, increased generation and use of renewable energy. It should re-invest financial savings back into the organisation, to fund specific carbon reducing initiatives, and, finally, the responsibility for carbon management should lie with the chief executive of each NHS body, and should be treated like any other key performance indicator.”

Click here for the NHS England Carbon Footprint 2012 document

Click here for the Health Check 2012 document

Companies