Fixing health AND the climate

I had the absolute delight of visiting Middlemore Hospital this week to celebrate their success in tackling climate change. Counties-Manukau DHB have managed to lower their carbon emissions by 20 per cent over five years. Not only is this great for the planet, but it has helped them deliver healthcare better to the people they serve. What is good for the climate is good for health, and what is good for health is good for the climate.

I loved walking through the hospital and having staff and doctors explaining to me the changes that they had proudly made. Staff led the way on the use of reusable cups, commuter ride share programmes, reducing anesthetic gases and better recycling. This has saved $500,000 in direct costs for the DHB, and I am excited to see how other DHBs will roll out their plans to lower their carbon emissions. A highlight was meeting one of the “recycling ninjas”, a young woman clearly passionate about the positive impact she is having.

The health sector benefits from making these changes by reducing healthcare costs, improving health care efficiency, improving equity and improving the overall health of the population. These feed into a wide range of health benefits such as reductions in heart disease, obesity and diabetes through, for example, low-carbon transport options that improve physical activity (such as walking, cycling and public transport).

It is estimated New Zealand’s healthcare sector contributes between 3 per cent and 8 per cent of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Hospitals, for example, use about twice as much total energy per square foot as traditional office space. We know that the health sector has some specific challenges to address. At Middlemore Hospital I got to see inside of the operating theatres and how anesthetic gases can be made more environmentally friendly.

Climate change and its consequences cause a wide range of risks to the health of individuals and society. Extreme weather events, heat waves and air pollutants can all cause harm to people’s health, and increase strain on the health sector. Taking action on climate change means improving our health system as well. Congratulations to Counties Manukau DHB for reducing their carbon footprint and setting an example to the rest of the health system on how it is done.