Healthcare and Climate Change: What Can We Do?

This year, we’ve entered into a new era of environmental activism. Emerging leaders like Greta Thunberg have brought the global challenge of climate change back into focus, inspiring a generational movement rooted in advocacy for stronger action to combat the environmental crisis.

A 2017 Health Canada poll found that 79 per cent of Canadians accept that global warming is happening, but only a little more than half think it’s a health risk right now. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause roughly 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Vulnerable populations are particularly at risk, including the poor, the elderly, the young, those who are chronically ill and those living in vulnerable geographic areas like the North.

So if climate change is one of the greatest threats to population health this century, we need to think about what we can do to reduce some of these risks.. Health systems and hospitals have an important responsibility to develop smart strategies and solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, to adopt an operational framework that leads to a reduced carbon footprint and to prioritize sustainable healthcare delivery. 

At Women’s College Hospital (WCH), we’re working to be a more environmentally friendly organization. Our hospital building is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certified, which means we’ve incorporated environmentally sustainable construction practices and an energy efficient design. An example of this is our green roof, which helps with water retention and management.

In addition, we developed a Sustainability Plan to identify ways that our organization can reduce energy consumption and the amount of waste we send to the landfill on a monthly and annual basis. We are integrating the principles of sustainability and sound environmental practice into all functions and operations within our hospital. Our aim is to reduce our environmental footprint and maintain compliance with municipal, provincial and federal legislation in order to protect human health and the environment.

To do this, we’ve implemented a series of actionable strategies to minimize our greenhouse gas footprint and we’re committed to adding to this list every year.  To reduce paper use, we’ve installed new printers with default double-sided printing. To minimize energy use in our building, we’re working in partnership with Black and McDonald, our building management company, to make necessary changes. To reduce the use of bottled water, we are installing more filtered water stations throughout the hospital. To implement an organics recycling program, we’re introducing the use of organic bins in our lobby and in staff lounges. On an annual basis, we will produce a sustainability report that measures year-over-year results of our initiatives. There’s a lot we’ve done and even more we need to do, but I’m proud of the strides we have made to shrink our hospital’s carbon footprint.

Climate change is a big issue, but there are small steps each one of us can take to make an important difference.  Individually and as a country, we can lower our carbon footprint by simply changing our eating habits.  Many Canadians prioritize healthy eating and the environment, but what most don’t realize is the link that exists between the two. The way food is grown and produced has a significant impact on human health and the environment. For instance, farming livestock leaves a much bigger carbon footprint than plant-based farming because it produces more greenhouse gas emissions and depletes natural resources like land and water. Consuming a more plant-based diet is an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint. Personal dietary choices have a collective benefit and it’s important to recognize how our individual actions impact the environment as a whole.

Climate change isn’t tomorrow’s problem. For the health of our patients, our communities and our world, we need to take accountability and action today.

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