As Boston and the country build back from the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s leading healthcare institutions already are turning their attention to preventing and preparing for the next public health emergency: the climate crisis.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the sense of urgency to prioritize equitable climate leadership,” said Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, Boston’s chief of environment, energy, and open space. “Our healthcare facilities are on the frontlines of treating residents who experience illnesses due to our emissions – that direct experience gives them a mandate to work alongside the town towards carbon neutrality, make their buildings efficient, and invest in the further protection of Boston residents, their health, and their communities for a long time ahead.”
Rising global temperatures are resulting in increased illnesses, changes in disease prevalence, and negative health impacts of more frequent extreme weather events – and the ones who suffer result in the emergency room. At the same time, healthcare operations contribute significantly to climate change and the diseases it is attempting to treat: The healthcare sector is in charge of nearly 8.5% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with hospitals generating one-third of these emissions.
“Healthcare organizations have an obligation to boost medical and well-being of patients and the communities we serve,” said Anne Klibanski, MD, CEO and president of Mass General Brigham and the GRC’s HEALTHCARE Working Group co-chair. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions shall create healthier environments for folks and assist in preventing public health crises before they happen. We have been proud to partner with the Green Ribbon Commission with this important work.”
Based on the report, local health facilities have cut emissions by 18% from 2011 through 2019, despite serving more patients and expanding healthcare facility space by 10%.
These pollution reductions are equal to eliminating 195 million miles traveled by the average passenger vehicle and, in accordance with HEALTHCARE Without Harm’s Climate and Energy Impact Calculator, have reduced the social costs – human health insurance and climate change-related impacts – of health care’s energy use by over $20.per year 5 million.
The report outlines the Boston healthcare sector’s collective progress towards the climate goals shared by the City of Boston and the GRC – cutting GHG emissions 50% by 2030, and 100% by 2050.
“Today’s report shows that hospitals in Boston are doing their part to reduce climate emissions through innovative approaches to energy management, improvements in energy efficiency and large-scale renewable energy purchases,” said Kate Walsh, Boston INFIRMARY Health System’s CEO and president and the GRC’s HEALTHCARE Working Group co-chair. focusing on sustainability “By, we have been prioritizing the ongoing health of our patients and communities beyond our hospital walls.”
The report singles out a shift to renewable and zero-carbon energy on the part of several major institutions as the largest contributor to the reductions to date.
“The efforts of leading health care institutions like Boston Medical Center and Mass General Brigham to shift to clean energy are already paying off for our health and our environment,” said Winston Vaughan, Health Care Without Harm’s director of climate solutions, and the report’s author. “Many other Boston hospitals are exploring opportunities to tap into the new offshore wind farms being developed off our coast and other clean energy projects to help get off of fossil fuels and cut their emissions.”
However, the report notes, while Boston hospitals have made significant cuts to their emissions in recent years, those reductions are not yet on a trajectory that would allow the sector to meet the levels of reduction needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees as called for by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the goals articulated by the populous city of Boston. It goes on to recognize biomedical research laboratories also, which make up 12% of the city’s health sector’s real estate, as a promising area for future energy efficiency efforts.
While the report shows that a sector-wide shift to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, combined with ambitious energy efficiency and electrification efforts will allow the sector to achieve a 50% reduction by 2030, there are significant challenges to achieving full decarbonization in the sector by 2050. Many Boston hospitals depend on central steam plants and combined power and heat systems. While highly efficient, these operational systems are powered by the combustion of fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, and there isn’t yet an obvious timeline or pathway to displace or transition to a zero-carbon fuel.
“It’s encouraging to see data showing Boston hospitals are making real strides in reducing carbon emissions,” said John Cleveland, the Boston Green Ribbon Commission’s executive director. “At the same time, it’s clear that hospitals are willing to explore new strategies and technologies to further cut emissions. As we move toward a carbon free future, these measurement milestones can help keep the concentrate on what’s needed from the populous city, state, federal government, and the private sectors, such as support in decarbonizing our district energy systems.”
“Tackling climate change is an opportunity to reshape Boston’s world-class health care institutions, and the proud city they serve,” added Vaughan. “Overcoming the challenges will demand leadership ahead, innovation, and collaboration but that’s what Boston does best.”