Slowing or even reversing climate change is a global responsibility, and that responsibility begins with those of us in the healthcare industry. Although we do our best to be responsible stewards of the environment, the healthcare industry in the U.S. is responsible for 7.6 percent of the nation’s total “climate footprint,” according to a report from the environmental advocacy group Health Care Without Harm. That’s equal to emissions from 140 coal-fired power plants in one year.
Nearly two-thirds of the healthcare industry’s emissions – 64 percent – come from what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines as Scope 3 sources. Scope 3 sources are from an industry’s supply chain, such as the production, transportation and disposal of products and services. In healthcare, an example would be the creation and disposal of medical waste.
Twenty-one percent of healthcare emissions come from Scope 1 sources, or direct emissions produced by the burning of fuels by the emitter, like how much electricity a single hospital uses.
Fifteen percent comes from Scope 2 sources, or indirect emissions generated by the electricity consumed and purchased by the emitter. For example, how much energy it takes to supply the electricity used by one hospital. Click to view larger version of pie chart
“As the temperature rises, you have more heat-related deaths, insect-borne diseases and food safety issues. As air pollution increases, you see more respiratory illnesses like asthma and COPD,” says Ann Meitz, sustainability director at 3M. “And you have mental health issues from people dealing with things like flooding or fires.”
A recent study in the journal Science Advances said reducing the projected rise in global temperatures by half over the next 80 years could save nearly 3,000 lives a year in 15 of the largest cities in the U.S.
What can you and your healthcare facility do to help save lives by cutting down on emissions? Like all challenges that seem insurmountable at first, it’s best to start small. In this case, the low-hanging carbon footprint fruit is energy efficiency.
“Scope 1 and 2 are the easiest things to tackle if you’re just starting out,” says Dana Slade, director of sustainability programs at HealthPartners in Bloomington, Minn. “And it’s primarily your utility bills where you’d get that information.”
Slade and Meitz recommend partnering with your local utility company to conduct an energy audit. Find out how much electricity your facility is using and benchmark that usage against that of your peers. If you’re high, there likely are some usual suspects within the four walls of your operation. Among them:
The fixes are easy: switch to energy-efficient lighting and light bulbs; unplug and remove unsanctioned refrigerators and space heaters; and turn off – or switch to power-save mode – computers, information systems, medical equipment and operating rooms. The energy savings will add up quickly.
As hospitals and health systems grow their physical footprint by adding all kinds of ancillary services and facilities, they’re also growing their carbon footprint – using energy directly and indirectly.
After the initial energy audit of your primary facility, you must expand your audit to cover every energy-using site under your corporate umbrella. Saving energy at your primary facility won’t mean much if it’s leaking out the windows of an old medical office building six blocks away.
One often-overlooked energy user is your data center. This is where all your hardware stores everything that all your software processes. It’s probably one of your biggest electricity users. Another is your food manufacturing and preparation facilities. They, too, consume more energy than expected. Many energy audits focus only on clinical areas, failing to flag opportunities to save energy in non-clinical operations.
Your energy audit and energy efficiency programs must be comprehensive and cover every area of your healthcare enterprise, according to Meitz and Slade. They say most of your wasted energy is coming from places that you’d least expect.
Reducing your facility’s carbon footprint in your supply chain is much more difficult than turning down the power or shutting off the lights. But, it’s not impossible and, like energy efficiency, it’s best to start small and grow from there.
The low-hanging carbon footprint fruit in your supply chain include:
Regardless of where you focus your attention, here are five steps to make lasting change, according to Meitz and Slade.
1. New positions. Create one, if not two, full-time positions: energy manager and/or sustainability manager. Reporting to your facilities management director, these positions signal to your entire enterprise that you’re making a commitment to energy efficiency and sustainability.
2. Staff education. Ideally overseen by the two new energy and sustainability managers, your organization should launch an ongoing staff education and training program to teach your staff how it can reduce its carbon footprint in every task they perform for your organization.
3. Change management. Related to staff education, you’ll need an effective change management program to make sure that the cultural changes needed to make your staff education program stick. You’ll need to develop energy and sustainability champions in all key departments.
4. Cross-functional collaboration. All initiatives should include representation from affected stakeholders. Knowing how your plans affect clinical practices and business functions is a critical success factor. Working with your population health department is also essential.
5. Transparency. Measuring your carbon footprint and making that information available to all affected stakeholders can help quantify and make tangible what many can’t see or appreciate. Monitoring and reporting your progress will keep everyone responsible and motivated. Not only is reducing your healthcare facility’s carbon footprint good for climate change, it’s also good for the health of your patients and your balance sheet. Given the starting points, steps and secrets for success outlined above, there’s no reason to wait.
Starting in 2019, we made a commitment that each product would address an environmental or social challenge. Find out more about 3M’s long-term sustainability strategy.
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