Health and sustainable development

Overview of health care activities and health

Putting health services on a low-carbon development path can support more resilient and cost-efficient service delivery, along with reduced environmental health risks for patients, health workers and the community. In supporting climate friendly policies, the health sector can display public leadership – while also improving health service delivery.

Health facilities in developed countries are energy- and resource-intensive operations. This leads to a high carbon footprint – both in terms of long-lived CO2 emissions, as well as of emissions of shorter-lived climate pollutants. These latter include black carbon, nitrous oxide and methane generated by energy combustion and waste disposal, and persisting for anywhere between a week (for black carbon) to a decade (for methane) in the atmosphere.

On the other hand, in many low-income countries, health services lack access to basic energy-related resources, particularly electricity and clean water supplies. Fuel and grid electricity supply costs are often very high, and when power is available it is often unreliable.

Many practices related to inefficient energy use and resource waste or mismanagement also contribute to pollution and other health risks among health workers, patients and the wider community.

Promoting low-carbon and energy-efficient health-care services can thus help reduce high energy costs; improve aspects of service functioning, safety and facility resilience. Use of renewable energy sources, such as solar energy, can help expand access to reliable power in clinics with no modern energy services—ensuring that the power source is cleaner as well. This can particularly benefit vulnerable groups such as expectant mothers, children, and poor communities.

There are a broad range of issues that need to be addressed by health facilities to promote a healthy, low-carbon future, and these differ by region and country. However, they generally include: inherently high requirements for energy and clean water resources; high energy costs; lack of energy access in low-income settings; energy-inefficient buildings, appliances and medical equipment; inefficient procurement of supplies and equipment; transportation requirements of health-workers, patients and visitors; and sewage and health care waste management.

When strategies are well-designed, more accessible, climate-friendly facilities may yield a cascade of benefits – in terms of reduced environmental health risks for patients, health workers, and communities. This section presents the main strategies that are important to consider. Tools for assessing, planning and financing health facility practices are also reviewed.