While fossil-fuel burning is responsible for more than half of the footprint, the report says there are several other causes, including the gases used to ensure that patients undergoing surgery feel no pain.
It is produced by Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), an international NGO seeking to change healthcare worldwide so that it reduces its environmental footprint and works for environmental health and justice globally. It was produced in collaboration with Arup.
The report says the European Union healthcare sector is the third largest emitter, accounting for 12% of the global healthcare climate footprint. More than half of healthcare’s worldwide emissions come from the top three emitters – the EU, the US and China. The report includes a breakdown for each EU member state.
An earlier report, published in May this year in the journal Environmental Research Letters, said the healthcare sectors of the 36 countries sampled were together responsible in 2014 for 1.6 GtCO2e (gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent), or 4.4% of the total emissions from these nations, and 4.4% is the total used in the HCWH report.
(Carbon dioxide equivalency is a simplified way to put emissions of various greenhouse gases (GHGs) on a common footing by expressing them in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that would have the same global warming effect, usually over a century.)
HCWH says well over half of healthcare’s global climate footprint comes from fossil-fuel combustion. But it identifies several other causes for concern as well. One is the range of gases used in anaesthesia to ensure patients remain unconscious during surgery.
These are powerful greenhouse gases. Commonly used anaesthetics include nitrous oxide, sometimes known as laughing gas, and three fluorinated gases: sevoflurane, isoflurane and desflurane. At present, the greater part of these gases enter the atmosphere after use.
Research by the UK National Health Service (NHS) Sustainable Development Unit shows the country’s anaesthetic gas footprint is 1.7%, most of it attributable to nitrous oxide use.
The UN climate change convention (UNFCCC) found that in 2014 a group of developed nations with 15% of the global population, 57% of the global GDP and 73% of global health expenditure was also responsible for 7 MtCO2e (megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) of medical nitrous oxide use.
The UNFCCC concluded that the full impact of the gas’s global use in anaesthesia “can be expected to be substantially greater”.
Use is growing
For fluorinated gases used in anaesthesia, global emissions to the atmosphere in 2014 were estimated to add 0.2% to the global health care footprint. Because of the growing use of these gases, increasingly chosen in preference to nitrous oxide, the footprint from anaesthetic gases is also likely to increase.