Environmental sustainability vital to better health and lower health costs

Reducing New Zealand’s carbon footprint and taking a lead on environmental sustainability, will improve people’s health, lead to major health cost savings and has potential to improve health equity, says Dr Cambell Bennett, a specialist anaesthetist at Lakes District Health Board and the Chair of the DHB’s sustainability committee.
“There’s been a lack of national leadership in developing and coordinating plans, measurement, reporting and monitoring for GHG emissions and sustainability.”
He says there is an irrefutable link between climate change events such as heat waves and floods, and negative impacts on human health including heat effects on those with long-term conditions and frailty, food- and water-borne illnesses and increased mental health problems.
The newly released Royal Society report on climate change and health reinforces that we have “a global public health emergency,” which harms the vulnerable members of our society most, including children, the elderly, people with chronic disease and low-income groups. “If we don’t address climate change then health inequities will only worsen.”
He says that the health sector itself has a significant impact on the environment through its purchasing and operations, and is a large emitter of the greenhouse gases that drive climate change. “The health sector’s mandate is to prevent and cure disease, yet the paradox is that the delivery of healthcare services, most notably in hospitals, often contributes to the problem. It has been estimated that healthcare produces three eight percent of a developed country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.”
These emissions are generated by hospital heating, ventilation and cooling, other building energy uses such as 24-hour devices, lighting, computers, waste, health-related travel, and through the whole procurement pathway of products used in hospitals such as pharmaceuticals and devices.
Dr Bennett says the health sector can lower its carbon footprint by actioning basic changes like energy efficiency and sourcing hospital food locally to reduce transport and food miles “which also supports jobs and the local economy, major determinants of health for a community”.
“Research shows that almost everything you do to reduce carbon in the health sector reduces costs.”
In the US, a Commonwealth Fund review estimated savings of $5 billion over five years and $15 billion over 10 years. In New Zealand, Waikato District Health Board’s energy efficiency projects since July 2015 save $300,000 a year.
He says New Zealand health professionals are strongly supportive of leading the way to reduce carbon emissions, as they recognise the benefits it would have to improve health and reduce inequities. “Financial savings could be redirected into areas such as providing better quality housing for low income groups which would in turn reduce hospitalisations from childhood respiratory illnesses.”
He says there are a groundswell of global health initiatives our health sector should action, such as emissions reduction targets and annual reporting, and employing sustainability officers at each DHB.
“The health of our environment and the health of New Zealanders goes hand in hand. We need to urgently address environmental challenges with a whole-ofsociety approach, including government, the health sector and other sectors such as agriculture and transport. By doing this together and seeing it as an opportunity for the entire community we can achieve winwins for both our environment and our health for current and future generations.”