Maximpact Blog

Carbon Neutrality in Hospitals Elusive, But Worth the Effort

By Sunny Lewis for Maximpact
A rooftop solar panel array on Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Clara Medical Center, Santa Clara, California, 2020 (Photo courtesy Kaiser Permanente) Posted for media use

RESTON, Virgina, July 31, 2023 ( Sustainability News) – The health care sector accounts for about 4.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Burning fossil fuels to operate hospitals and clinics 24/7, producing the medicines, medical devices, food, and equipment to provide health care has been releasing heat-trapping greenhouse gases, but now a new readiness in the industry to curb those emissions is emerging. 

Now, for the first time, health care facilities have a climate impact calculator designed specifically for them, offering hospitals and clinics practical technical support in their struggle to reduce their planet-warming emissions. 

Designed and issued by the organizations Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth, the Energy and Health Impact Calculator estimates both the negative health impacts and health care costs caused by burning fossil fuels for energy, and also the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

This free tool estimates the number of health incidents, medical treatment costs, and societal costs by energy unit, including premature deaths, chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, emergency room visits, etc., using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S Department of Energy, and other peer-reviewed sources.

The Calculator helps health care organizations take their next step on the path to emissions measurement, reporting, and reduction efforts. 

Developed in line with the world’s most widely used greenhouse gas accounting standard, the GHG Protocol, the calculator enables health care organizations to develop a greenhouse gas inventory at the facility or system level for all scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions.

Health care organizations can use the calculator to:

  • Develop a baseline GHG emissions inventory;
  • Track increases and decreases in GHG emissions over time;
  • Identify major sources of GHG emissions at either the facility or system level;
  • Create an action plan to reduce Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions;
  • Prioritize potential interventions to reduce GHG emissions;
  • Understand the climate footprint of the organization’s supply chain;
  • Measure GHG emissions as part of climate pledges like the Health and Human Services Health Sector Climate Pledge or Race to Zero;

For a video exploring the new Energy and Health Impact Calculator, click here.

Renewables Are a Necessity, Not a Luxury

The move to curb carbon emissions from the health care sector is not limited to the United States, it’s happening across the world. 

The UK has its first hospital to be fully powered by its own renewable energy during daylight hours. Castle Hill Hospital in Cottingham, England runs off the electricity generated by an adjacent field of solar panels. 2022 (Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL Photographer) Posted for media use

Last year, Castle Hill Hospital in Cottingham, East Yorkshire, England became the first hospital in the UK run solely from renewable energy, provided by its own field of solar panels. Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust began installing solar panels on land adjacent to the hospital site in September 2021. It took five months to install, but now a local hospital trust’s investment in solar technology is paying dividends.

Marc Beaumont, Head of Sustainability for the Trust, said, “Castle Hill Hospital is a specialist regional centre for cardiology, oncology, and haematology for example, and it boasts one of just a handful of specialist infectious diseases units around the country. When you consider the size of the Castle Hill Hospital site and the amount of activity that goes on here, that’s a huge amount of power that’s required to keep it running.”

“It’s incredible to think that the power used to deliver patients’ radiotherapy treatment sessions, to support many life-saving surgical procedures, and to keep our intensive care unit running right now is all completely self-generated, green electricity,” Beaumont said.

In Brussels, Belgium, the Brugmann University Hospital (CHU) and the Queen Fabiola Children’s University Hospital installed 2,000 photovoltaic panels on their roofs, installations inaugurated in October 2022. Due to the reduction of 212,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, the hospitals hope to reduce their carbon footprint by two percent.

In Raichur, an ancient town in southern India where temperatures can soar to 42°Celsius (107°F), rooftop solar panels installed at the Government Maternity Hospital last year keep the hospital running despite frequent power cuts to India’s overwhelmed electrical grid.

Health centers across Asia and Africa are increasingly turning to solar power to meet basic energy needs. But larger hospitals in remote areas still hesitate to install solar panels for two reasons: remote areas lack solar vendors, and even larger hospitals cannot afford 24/7 solar power.

Larger hospitals run surgical centers, intensive care units, neonatal intensive care units and emergency rooms, all requiring power. When the power grid is unreliable, hospitals must plan for a 24/7 power backup, but powering such large loads with renewable energy sources is expensive

Still, health care facilities are seeking energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions.

When health care facilities care about sustainability, they measure and track their carbon emissions before attempting to reduce their carbon footprint. 

They survey the entire business and use emissions scopes 1, 2, and 3 to help categorize emissions sources and impacts.

The GHG Protocol divides emissions into three scopes.

Essentially, scope 1 are those direct emissions that are owned or controlled by a company, in this case a health care facility.

Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from purchased electricity, steam, heat, and cooling. And Scope 3 emissions are all the other emissions associated with a company’s activities.

Federal leaders and private health systems are considering how to turn climate commitments into action, and this attracted much attention at CleanMed – Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth’s CleanMed conference in Pittsburgh in May.

More than 750 health care experts from across the country heard John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H., acting director of the U.S. Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, share his thoughts. “We have to meet people where they are, understand their perception of the barriers, and appeal to common values, whether that’s health equity, service to community, service to a higher power, or service to the planet. We need to make it easy to get started,” said Balbus, a physician and public health professional with over 25 years of experience working on the health implications of climate change.

In a July 26 joint statement with Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine MD, Dr. Balbus wrote, “For health systems and providers, this is a moment to think seriously about how equipped you are to stay open and serve your community during climate-related disasters and extreme weather events. Many providers are resource-constrained and still struggling to maintain adequate staffing following the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“It can be tempting to think of climate resilience as a luxury, but as we are already seeing, investments in preparedness are key to fulfilling health care’s mission and protecting staff. For example, Greenwich Hospital’s combined heat and power system has allowed them to stay open during storms, even admitting new patients and housing staff during Hurricane Sandy,” Dr. Balbus said, referring to the hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut.

“The bad news is that we know these events will continue as climate change accelerates,” Balbus wrote. “The good news is that action now can still prevent the worst impacts of climate change from occurring, and much of that action can be accelerated by the landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).”

Many resilience investments are more affordable than ever before due to the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in 2022. The Health and Human Services Office of Climate Change and Health Equity has created a Quickfinder and associated webinar series to help health care organizations navigate the potentially transformative opportunities presented by the IRA’s billions of dollars in grants, loan programs, and tax credits for resilient and renewable infrastructure. 

The Quickfinder offers examples of health entities that have successfully made resilience and sustainability investments, such as the Kaiser Richmond Medical Center’s solar-powered microgrid.

Microgrids are a great example of how health system climate resilience can be funded by the IRA, Balbus explained. Microgrids are self-sufficient energy systems that rely on distributed energy like combined heat and power and solar. Because microgrids do not rely on a central grid, they are more energy efficient and can allow facilities to function as “islands” during power outages, Dr. Balbus wrote.

Hospitals Are Catching On

In September 2020, the largest integrated, nonprofit health system in the United States, Kaiser Permanente, became the first health care system in the country to achieve carbon-neutral status. Kaiser Permanente said the company has “prioritized sustainability to contribute to and catalyze a green future free of the extreme climate conditions currently harming so many Americans.”

This move to carbon neutrality eliminates the organization’s 800,000-ton annual carbon footprint, the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road.

In order to reach this milestone, Kaiser Permanente first improved energy efficiency in its buildings, installed on-site solar power, and made long-term purchases of new renewable energy generation.

Kaiser Permanente then invested in carbon offsets to counter the currently unavoidable emissions from the natural gas power that heats and cools its hospitals.

The carbon offsets were chosen for their strong health benefits, Kaiser Permanente said. One project funds clay pot water filters in Guatemala that avoid burning wood or gas to boil water, and also reduce fatal childhood waterborne diseases. Another project prevents the conversion of Indonesian peatland into high-pollution palm oil production while funding a floating health clinic for riverside communities.

“We are proud of this accomplishment, but the urgency and scale of climate change require even greater and more widespread innovation,” said Ramé Hemstreet, vice president of operations for Kaiser Permanente’s National Facilities Services, and chief energy officer. “As we set our sights on new goals, we hope our example inspires others in our industry to do the same.”

More hospitals are taking climate action. This week Practice Greenhealth is celebrating achievement of a climate-friendly, plant-forward goal. Over 100 hospitals have signed the Coolfood Pledge, an international, cross-sector effort to achieve a science-based collective target of reducing carbon emissions from food by 25 percent by 2030.

Four hospitals joined the pledge when it was initially launched in late 2018. In June 2023, Northwell Health, which operates 21 hospitals and serves 10 million meals per year, became a signatory and helped the health care sector surpass the 100-hospital milestone. Along with being the largest health system to sign the pledge to date, Northwell Health is a nonprofit integrated health care network and New York state’s largest health care provider and private employer. 

Coolfood hospitals work to slash food-related greenhouse gas emissions, while saving costs and improving health. Health care signatories receive technical assistance from Practice Greenhealth, a sustainable health care organization, which delivers environmental solutions to more than 1,500 hospitals and health systems in the United States and Canada.

“We are thrilled to support hospitals throughout their journey,” said John Stoddard, associate director of food and climate strategy at Practice Greenhealth. “Hospitals are implementing various tactics to promote plant-based diets, like offering more plant-based options, reducing meat in existing dishes, and using marketing strategies such as renaming dishes and creating appealing descriptions to encourage diners to choose plant-based meals.”

Hospitals and health systems interested in joining the pledge can visit