The NHS yesterday adopted a multiyear plan to become the world’s first carbon net zero national health system.

The Board has formally adopted two targets, set as the earliest possible credible dates for the NHS to achieve net zero emissions:

  • A target of net zero by 2040 for emissions under NHS direct control, with an ambition for an interim 80% reduction by 2028-2032, and;
  • A target of net zero by 2045 for emissions including the wider supply chain, with an ambition for an interim 80% reduction by 2036-2039.

The commitment is based on the findings of a report by the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel in January, led by Dr Nick Watts, Executive Director of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. The Panel comprised public health and climate experts as well as patient and staff representatives.

Their report sets out how the health service has already cut its own carbon footprint by 62% compared to the international-standard 1990 baseline, and by 26% when indirect factors are included.

The commitment comes amid growing evidence of the health impacts of climate change and air pollution, and aims to save thousands of lives and hospitalisations across the country.

Air pollution is linked to killer conditions like heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, and academics have linked high pollution days with hundreds of extra out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and hospital admissions for stroke and asthma.

The changing climate is leading to more frequent heatwaves and extreme weather events such as flooding, including the potential spread of infectious diseases to the UK. Almost 900 people were killed by last summer’s heatwaves while nearly 18 million patients go to a GP practice in an area that exceeds the World Health Organisation’s air pollution limit.

Scientists believe perhaps a third of new asthma cases might be avoided by cutting emissions, while Lyme Disease and encephalitis are among conditions expected to become more common as temperatures rise.

Net zero delivery

Actions earmarked to support delivery of net zero across the NHS include finding new ways of delivering care at or closer to home to reduce patient journeys; greening the NHS fleet (including road-testing a zero-emissions emergency ambulance by 2022), and building energy conservation into staff training and education programmes.

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “2020 has been dominated by Covid-19 and is the most pressing health emergency facing us. But undoubtedly climate change poses the most profound long-term threat to the health of the nation.

“It is not enough for the NHS to treat the problems caused by air pollution and climate change – from asthma to heart attacks and strokes – we need to play our part in tackling them at source.”

“The NHS has already made significant progress decarbonising our care, but as the largest employer in Britain, responsible for around 4% of the nation’s carbon emissions, if this country is to succeed in its overarching climate goals the NHS has to be a major part of the solution.”