Tackling climate change

The World Health Organization has described climate change as “the defining health challenge of our time”. We recognise the importance of using our collective voice as a College to support Government to take action.

Context

In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy to pass a net zero emission law, committing to bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. This target brings with it a need for all industries, including health services, to behave in a sustainable way. 

Climate change has known impacts on the social and environmental determinants of health – affecting clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter. Children are among the most vulnerable to these resulting health risks and will be exposed to the health consequences for longer. Globally, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. This is likely to have a significant impact on the health sector.  

In England alone, the NHS is responsible for around 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually. This carbon footprint is shaped not just by procured goods, energy use in buildings, and patient/staff travel, but also through our current models of care and clinical behaviours. Substantial changes in service models are therefore needed to reduce healthcare-related carbon emissions in line with national targets. 

Our work to date

As a medical Royal College, we are focusing our efforts on placing the impact on health at the heart of climate change activity. We are strengthening our relationships with stakeholders who are collectively advocating on behalf of health institutions through our membership of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. Through coordinated action, we can maximise our impact to protect children’s health. 

There is personal action that individuals can make to influence change, and we can all play our part. We recognise that collective action on climate change needs to be balanced against the current pressures we know our members face in driving forward improvements in child health. 

In addition, we recognise the need to investigate the impact of our own institution. 

The College’s existing work on tackling climate change has included:

  • An ethical investment policy which clarifies that the College has no direct investment in companies with evidence of owning fossil fuel reserves regardless of their industries
  • Holding an annual College ‘Green Week’ designed to raise the profile of sustainability both at work and at home and reducing carbon footprint, with staff encouraged and supported to cycle to work
  • Driving forward many initiatives relating to our building, including recycling 100% of waste, no purchasing of plastic cups, milk purchased in glass bottles, motion-activated lighting on our work floors and reducing our use of paper and printing
  • Upgrading our IT infrastructure to facilitate committee meetings being held virtually
  • Working closely with other royal colleges on climate and health advocacy as part of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change
  • Launching a position statement on outdoor air quality
  • Publishing a detailed systematic review and report on indoor air quality
  • Declaring a climate emergency

Our priorities for future action

In October 2020 we joined many other organisations in declaring a climate emergency, highlighting in particular the detrimental impacts of air pollution on younger people. Climate change has been identified as a priority in our new College strategy for 2021-24, and we are in the process of establishing a comprehensive programme of work which will be driven by our members, which is being led by a dedicated Climate Change Working Group (CCWG).

Our ambitious aims are set to include: 

  • Effectively using our collective voice and expertise as paediatricians to influence the national and international climate change agenda, focusing in particular on the health impacts faced by children and young people now and in the future
  • Advancing research on the effects of climate change on child health inequalities and on the impacts of the climate crisis on young people’s physical and mental health
  • Developing and promoting training for our members on key aspects of sustainable healthcare and the climate crisis, including communication about this topic with patients and families
  • Supporting our members to advocate for improved sustainability locally in their clinical work and workplaces as well as supporting the wider national ambition for the NHS to be net zero by 2040

External environment

We support the Greener NHS Team in their vision, “To deliver the world’s first net zero health service and respond to climate change, improving health now and for future generations”. 

As members of the UK Health Alliance for Climate Change, we join a national coalition of health professionals in calling for a #HealthyRecovery from COVID-19 - one that improves human health, and builds resilience in health systems, and in the environment upon which our health depends.

Published: November 2019

Last update: June 2021