Rising temperatures and extreme weather events triggered by greenhouse gases have profound impacts on human health. These include increased illness and death from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, injuries, malnutrition, as well as infectious and vector-borne diseases. The bulk of these are borne by the poorest of the poor, often women.
“The injustice is that those contributing the least to climate change are often among the most affected,” said Prince Rahim Aga Khan, in his address at the Aga Khan University’s (AKU) Institute for Global Health and Development's inaugural seminar.
As if that were not bad enough, the healthcare sector – whose services are out-of-reach for half the world according to the World Bank and WHO – is responsible for two gigatonnes of CO2 each year, about 4-5% of global net emissions. If it were a country, it would be the world’s 5th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to a 2019 report published by Health Care Without Harm.
At this rate, is achieving universal health coverage going to make people sicker and the environment less resilient?
Fortunately, hospitals and labs are increasingly working to care for the planet as well as for their patients. Deploying solar power, ramping up recycling programmes, purchasing environmentally safer products – these are just some of the many sustainable energy and waste solutions that can help decarbonise health care and offset (not add to) the global carbon footprint.
The Network’s hospitals and health centres – which serve some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world – are committed to becoming carbon neutral in their operations by 2030. They are promoting actions that deliver quality care and are at the same time good for the environment.
The Aga Khan Health Services and AKU have even proven that LMICs can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while leveraging greater health gains – and saving money. According to their findings, published by the British Medical Journal in November 2021, “measures to mitigate carbon emissions can deliver cost savings (e.g., energy efficiency), short-term public health benefits (e.g., reduced air pollution) and timely access to care (e.g., telehealth)”.
“There can be no doubt that we are operating amid an alarming state of affairs in terms of both the impact of climate change on human health and the impact of healthcare systems on climate change… the interactions between these two deserve study and careful policy consideration,” said Prince Rahim Aga Khan. “We want to ensure that in the face of climate change, people not only survive but also thrive.”