As world leaders arrive in Glasgow to attend this year’s UN climate change conference – COP26 – they will be bringing with them their country’s updated plans to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The media spotlight will be firmly on these leaders in the first fortnight of November, and once the photocalls have ended, the hard work begins. The focus will be on what countries are doing to meet their promises at COP21 in Paris – to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees – and what progress has been made so far.  

The IPPC confirmed that human-induced climate extremes can now be seen across every habitable region of the globe. Climate change is occurring at a rate ‘unprecedented’ in more than 2,000 years – with some changes now irreversible.  

The UK government and the health and social care system – and charities and foundations like us – are acting, but we all need to do much more. 

The risk to health 

Climate change injures health. While other countries are far more vulnerable to the health risks of climate change, the UK is not immune. Heat-related deaths are projected to more than triple to 7,000 a year by the 2050s. Flooding events, with their immediate and lasting health effects, have become more frequent. Climate change is likely to have most adverse effects on people who are already vulnerable in other ways. 

Co-benefits of climate action for health 

Reducing global warming benefits health. Air pollution currently contributes to around 36,000 deaths a year in the UK. Promoting active transport, improving green space, improving diets, upgrading the quality of the housing stock, and creating secure high-quality green jobs will all support wellbeing and health.  

20 years ago, the world was not nearly as active as now in recognising and addressing climate change. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions and tackling global warming was deemed too complex and difficult a problem to make much headway on. But progress has been made – domestically this includes across government departments, action by local authorities, and increasing investor and corporate action. 

Our new podcast this month explores what we can learn from how ‘green’ has gone up the agenda, and how we might apply useful lessons to getting further improvements in another complex and difficult challenge – improving the health of the UK population, in particular reducing inequalities. 

Separately we have been spelling out how a cross-government strategy to reduce health inequalities might work. Also highly relevant is our earlier exploration of the need for long-term planning to tackle the most complex and enduring problems facing society. 

Net zero NHS 

Science tells us that by the second half of this century, we should be producing less carbon than we take out of the atmosphere – reaching ‘net zero’. The NHS is already taking climate change seriously, aiming to become the world’s first net zero health care system by 2045 (the NHS currently produces roughly the same emissions as Denmark). The publication of the Greener NHS’s strategy to tackle climate change is a welcome step forward and builds on years of progress already made in the NHS.  

Making progress towards the net zero target clearly means transformation across the whole NHS – in procurement, prevention, nature of clinical care, travel, use of technology and more. Aligned action across social care and the wider constellation of organisations that make up the health and social care system will also be needed.  

The Health Foundation has recently confirmed funding for a 2-year fellowship at the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC). This will support a 2-year commission on how to achieve net zero in surgery delivered by UKHACC, Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare. The Foundation is also supporting the NHS to become more sustainable in part through supporting the ‘anchor’ network. Through adopting sustainable practice within NHS organisations, shaping community spaces and influencing suppliers, this not only supports the wider net zero NHS agenda but also improves the health and wellbeing of communities now and in the future.  

Public perceptions of climate change, health and the NHS 

Understanding public views will help the NHS make progress on net zero ambitions. Earlier this week we published the findings from an Ipsos MORI survey we commissioned to explore public perceptions of climate change and health. The findings show that while the public are concerned about the health impacts of climate change, they don’t yet recognise the NHS’s role as a major contributor of emissions. Once this is explained, while the majority of the public support the NHS’s ambition to achieve net zero, they think it is a low priority. This points to the need for better public communication on the need to take action, and what it will mean for care. 

What we are doing at the Foundation  

As a funder, investor and workplace with a carbon footprint, we have a responsibility to act on climate change. And for the past 2 years we have been working to embed environmental sustainability across our activities. This includes our external facing role in providing analysis and research, in how we give grants, invest our endowment and use our leverage to take collective action with other investors. It also includes our internal operations – for example how we manage our workplace and events.  

And there is more we can do. With our mission to improve health and health care in the UK, when we refresh our strategy next year, we will be considering how to increase the ‘green’ thread of sustainability throughout the whole organisation. 

Jennifer Dixon (@JenniferTHF) is Chief Executive of the Health Foundation.

This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.

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