Healthcare is dirty. There’s still time to clean it up

The U.S. healthcare system emits the same amount of greenhouse gases every year as 100 coal-fired power plants.

That’s according to Gary Cohen, founder and president of Practice Greenhealth and Health Care Without Harm. Cohen said two culprits account for nearly 80% of the healthcare industry’s carbon emissions: the supply chain and nonrenewable energy investments. The supply chain in particular—which includes anything from medical devices to food—is a pain point for all hospitals, because they cannot function without a reliable pipeline.

“So much of the climate footprint is in the supply chain,” Cohen said. “It’s really the place where a lot of work needs to happen.”

Some of that work has already started. Since November 2021, 650 hospitals have signed a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 in accordance with the Glasgow Climate Pact, Cohen said. While doing so requires sweeping changes, some hospitals have already begun to close the loop on their energy consumption and supply chains in smaller ways.

At Boston Medical Center, a 2,700-square-foot rooftop farm produces more than three tons of vegetables each year, said David Maffeo, the hospital’s senior director of support services. The farm provides food for patients and those experiencing food insecurity, who can receive a produce prescription from a doctor via the hospital’s food clinic.

“Food often travels thousands of miles. We’re growing it just feet away from our patient rooms,” he said.

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Kaiser Permanente, the first health system in the U.S. to reach carbon neutrality, is now working to scale back its buildings’ water use by 25% by 2025. Kaiser has already taken steps to get there, said Seema Wadhwa, the system’s executive director for environmental stewardship.

“We installed low-flow and automatic water fixtures, moved to xeriscaping—or drought-tolerant landscaping—and invested in smart irrigation systems to avoid wasting water in our facilities,” she said. As of April, those steps have reduced water use by 15% compared with 2013, she added.

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