The health care sector accounts for as much as 10% of the U.S. carbon footprint and 5% globally, according to recent studies. This sobering statistic has an upside: It means that changes in the industry can play a major role in addressing the climate crisis. Below are a few examples of how UCSF and other health care institutions are responding to the realities of climate change.
Committing to aggressive goals for reducing carbon emissions: The University of California has committed to achieving climate neutrality at all 10 of its campuses by 2025. “UCSF is on track to get there through its Climate Action Plan,” says Gail Lee, the university’s sustainability director. “And if we can't quite get there, we will invest in carbon offsets that have proven health co-benefits. For example, clean cookstoves reduce emissions and reduce indoor air pollution that affect women and children, especially in the developing world.”
Designing health systems that minimize the need for hospital care and allow patients to stay close to home: For instance, mobile phone apps can help patients manage chronic disease and telemedicine can bring expert support to rural facilities. Care for rural patients could also be brought closer to home by introducing clinics at local pharmacies, schools, or libraries.
Integrating solar power and other renewable energy sources into facility design: Over the past decade, Kaiser Permanente, which serves 12 million Americans, has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 29% while increasing membership by 20% in part through its use of solar power.
Building infrastructure that is more resilient to natural disasters: After a devastating storm in 2001 halted almost all operations at the Texas Medical Center, the facility built its own new heat and power utility plant at an elevation to avoid flooding. The plant emits less carbon and is managed by an independent power company, eliminating dependence on the Houston utility grid. When Hurricane Harvey hit, the medical center remained almost fully operational.
Incorporating natural ventilation, efficient lighting and water usage: The Western Cape Government health system in South Africa has committed to reducing its carbon footprint from energy consumption in government hospitals 10% by 2020 and 30% by 2050 (based on 2015 levels). They are using natural light and ventilation where possible, curbing air conditioning, replacing lights with efficient fluorescent and LED lighting in combination with light-colored walls, installing heat pumps for hot water, and including green spaces in facility design. Coal- and oil-fired boilers have been eliminated at nearly all hospitals.
Pursuing low-carbon electrical planning: South Korea’s Yonsei University Health System has set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its facilities by 27% by 2020. Yonsei has instituted numerous low-carbon strategies such as a building energy management system that reduces overall energy consumption by 10% through LED lights in parking structures and occupancy sensor lighting controls in restrooms.
Dive into the future of health in this special issue of UCSF Magazine.