The health effects of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent – more frequent extreme weather events such as heat waves, fires, floods, and storms are leading to direct loss of life, malnutrition due to crop failure, and altered infectious disease patterns due to water and vector-borne disease. Air pollution is also contributing significantly to heart disease, stroke, and respiratory disease worldwide.

The health care sector, however, whose mission it is to protect health, is a major contributor to climate change and air pollution. A new study published by The Lancet Planetary Health shows that the health care sector accounts for 7% of Australia’s CO2e emissions (CO2 equivalent refers to a combination of harmful greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide), with hospitals and pharmaceuticals making up most of this. 

Researchers obtained 2014-15 financial data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for 15 sectors of the health care industry, including public and private hospitals, dental services, and private practice. They used this data in to determine a carbon dioxide equivalent emissions factor for each sector, and to obtain an overall emissions footprint.

In this period, Australia spent AU$161.6 billion on health care – which generated CO2e emissions of about 35,772 kilotons. The five biggest carbon-emitting areas in the health care sector were (in descending order): public hospitals, private hospitals, other medications, benefit-paid drugs, and capital expenditure for buildings.

The co-author of the study, Dr Forbes McGain, an anaesthetist and intensive care physician with Western Health in Melbourne (a GGHH member), said anaesthetic gases were a significant contributor to hospital carbon emissions.

According to the researchers, the results suggest the need for carbon-efficient procedures and greater public health measures to lower the impact of health care services on the environment.


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