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New climate change office at US Health Department to tackle hospital, health system GHGs

30 August 2021 Amena Saiyid

The US Department of Human and Health Services (HHS) is charging a newly created Office of Climate Change and Health Equity with targeting GHG cuts at hospitals and health systems, starting with those that fall under the federal government.

The office, which was created under President Joe Biden's 27 January executive order on climate, would use existing authority and tools at its disposal to partner with hospitals and healthcare systems to reduce their carbon footprint. It also will work across the department as well as across the government to find solutions for climate-fueled disasters and illnesses that are battering vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, and low-income communities.

"As Ida batters the Gulf, the West is on fire, and states like Tennessee and those in New England are recovering from devastating storms, there is no doubt that America is experiencing climate change. And there is no reason for us to doubt that we must take this on immediately, as it is just not about the climate, it's not just about environment, it's about our health," US Secretary for Human and Health Services Xavier Becerra told reporters in a 30 August briefing.

One-in-seven children face climate hazards

A UNICEF report released 20 August said 1 billion children face "extremely high risk" from the impacts of climate change, including coastal and riverine flooding, polluted water and air, and vector-borne diseases that are on the rise due to changing temperatures.

According to the report, an estimated 330 million, or one in seven, children, including those in the US, are exposed to at least five major climate and environmental hazards, shocks and stresses that include drought-fueled water scarcity, wildfires, and floods.

Noting that the US healthcare sector was responsible for 8.5% of the country's GHG emissions in 2018, or about 553 million metric tons (mt) of CO2 equivalent, and the global health sector is responsible for around 4.5% of GHGs, or 2 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, US Assistant Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said this effort is critically important for reaching economywide GHG cuts. Levine will be overseeing the new office.

US healthcare sector highest GHG emitter

The US is the world's highest emitter of healthcare-related GHGs, accounting for 27% of the global healthcare footprint, followed by China at 17%, according to a 2019 report by Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), an international nonprofit that seeks sustainable solutions for the sector, and Arup, a London-based engineering firm.

According to the 2019 HCWH study analyzing the global health sector GHGs, emissions emanating directly from healthcare facilities make up 17% of the sector's worldwide footprint. Indirect emissions from purchased electricity, steam, cooling, and heating are responsible for another 12%. But the lion's share of GHGs—71%—is primarily derived from the healthcare supply chain—the production, transportation, use, and disposal of goods and services that the sector consumes.

This same study recommended the healthcare sector "transition to clean, renewable energy and transportation," which the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in an October 2019 essay said was already underway at many hospitals.

According to the AAMC essay, the University of Vermont Medical Center began generating electricity via a solar array on its rooftop in December 2018 and participates in the Vermont Gas Renewable Natural Gas Program, which captures methane from a landfill in Quebec, Canada. Likewise, the Boston Medical Center (BMC) buys electricity from Summit Farms, a 650-acre, 255,000-panel solar farm in North Carolina. Each year, BMC eliminates 119,500 mt of CO2 emissions.

Beginning with federal government

The goal of reducing the health sector's GHGs will begin with the federal government, which operates some of the US' largest healthcare systems, including the ones at the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and the Indian Services Agency, according to John Balbus, senior adviser on public health at the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who will serve as the office's interim director and was present for the briefing.

The goal is to develop and utilize the best practices and technologies at the federal government to reduce GHGs and to transfer those to the private sector, Balbus added.

Before any reductions can be sought from the health sector though, Balbus said "careful accounting" of GHGs will be needed to identify not only the primary sources of GHGs, such as energy systems, but also the supply chains.

No GHG goal for healthcare sector yet

Levine acknowledged that the office has not yet set a GHG reduction goal for the health sector, but said HHS has already been reaching out to hospitals and healthcare systems to identify approaches for reducing their carbon footprint.

Although the office will work with existing authorities, Becerra made it clear that he would work with whatever tools he has to reduce GHGs and to protect vulnerable communities from climate-change impacts.

This may take either the form of incentives or regulatory guidance, said Arsenio Mataka, senior adviser on climate change and health equity, who also was present for the briefing.

When pressed to elaborate on what tools HHS has to help communities, Mataka said the agency has within its authority the ability to give grants to people who cannot afford air conditioning on their own.

"We have seen how climate change is threatening those with COVID-19," Levine said.

Posted 30 August 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate and Energy Research Analyst


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