December 19, 2018

Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospitals and Clinical Institutes Sign Joint Commitment to Decarbonize

Recognizing the impact of climate change on health care, Harvard Medical School and affiliated teaching hospitals and clinical institutes agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Boston, MA – Until recently, climate change was seen as a distant prospect— something that would affect future generations and people living somewhere else. 

Not anymore.

Recently released climate reports such as the National Climate Assessment (NCA) have delivered powerful new evidence on how climate change is harming people and communities in the United States and around the world.

Climate change already is contributing to serious health problems ranging from exacerbating asthma to fueling risk for heart disease and lung cancer, according to experts. Wildfires, floods, and heatwaves are all exacting heavy tolls, especially among the most vulnerable, according to NCA’s findings and the recent Lancet Countdown U.S. Brief on Health and Climate Change

In addition, the reports make clear that climate change is also a direct threat to the health care system. For example, Hurricane Maria, made stronger by the warming of the ocean due to climate change, destroyed medical facilities in Puerto Rico, causing nationwide shortages and rationing of care and basic medical supplies.

Recognizing the threat that climate change poses to both human health and the health care system itself, Harvard Medical School and its affiliated hospitals and clinical institutes have committed to extensively decarbonize their operations, a move that is consistent with a major recommendation of the Lancet Countdown U.S. Brief.

Reducing the carbon footprint of these institutions is critical to mitigiating climate change, and could yield significant benefits to patient health. About 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change stem from burning fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels also releases harmful air pollutants, such as particulate matter and ozone, which can worsen many diseases, including respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.

This is why, under the leadership of Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley and physicians Ashish K. Jha and Aaron Bernstein of the Harvard Global Health Institute, all Harvard affiliated hospitals and clinical institutes, representing more than 25 individual facilities, have agreed to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

“The evidence is clear–burning less fossil fuel in power plants, cars and buses translates into less air pollution,” Daley said. “Less air pollution can help reduce risk for heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks and lung cancer and improve pregnancy outcomes.”

“As health care providers, we are enormously proud to speak with one voice as we seek to decarbonize for the health of our patients,” Daley added.

Recent research has indicated that the health care industry in the United States accounts for nearly 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from hospitals. Between 2006 and 2016, greenhouse gas emissions associated with health care have increased by 30 percent.

The actions of Harvard-affiliated hospitals and clinical institutes are part of a broader Decarbonizing Health Care initiative underway at Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI), which aims to facilitate similar commitments from other hospitals, first in Massachusetts, then in the nation, then globally.

“This is an important and very concrete outcome of our work on climate change and health,” says Ashish Jha, HGHI’s faculty director. “Harvard University has made enormous gains in reducing our carbon footprint. Our hospitals are now doing the same.We are hoping that similar commitments will be made nationwide and to do so we must lead by example. The gravest impact of climate change will be on human health, so there is no better place to begin than our hospitals and clinics.”

Participating hospitals, groups and clinical institutes: