Biden admin asks health industry to slash GHG emissions

By Ariel Wittenberg | 04/22/2022 01:35 PM EDT

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The Biden administration is asking health care providers and others in the industry to commit to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and take other actions to mitigate climate change.

The Department of Health and Human Services today unveiled a pledge for hospitals, health systems, suppliers, pharmaceutical companies and others in the industry to sign and commit to the same level of emissions reductions the federal government has already promised for its own health systems, like Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.

“We need all players on the field confronting the climate crisis; sitting on the sidelines is not an option,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said. “Every stakeholder group in America must step up, and collaboration across the public and private sector is key.”

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Specifically, the voluntary pledge involves a minimum commitment by organizations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050, and to publicly report their progress. The pledge also asks signees to complete an inventory of their supply chain emissions, and to develop climate resilience plans for their facilities and communities. Signatories of the pledge will be honored at a White House ceremony in June.

“Stakeholders in the U.S. Healthcare system,” the pledge, crafted by HHS, says, “must lead the response to this crisis through their example and through preparedness to meet the catastrophic and chronic challenges to come.”

The health care sector contributes 8.5 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, meaning “they have a big role to play” in mitigating climate change, national climate adviser Gina McCarthy said in a statement.

“We are excited for health care leaders across the country willing to step up, reduce emissions, and help us reach the President’s bold climate goals,” she said.

Some hospitals and health care providers have already started the work, switching to renewable fuels and changing how anesthesia is applied in the operating room to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from keeping patients unconscious (Greenwire, Sept. 15, 2021).

“We are encouraged by the bold and specific commitments to decarbonization that many organizations across the country have already made,” said Public Health Service Adm. Rachel Levine, who is also assistant secretary for health. “It is time for us to both celebrate those commitments and galvanize others to take this critical step.”

The administration’s climate change challenge to the health care industry to voluntarily cut emissions comes as HHS itself is mulling whether or how to require such reductions.

Last fall, the National Academy of Medicine launched a Climate Collaborative in conjunction with HHS and partners in the health sector, including big names like Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealth Group, to explore ways to cut emissions from all aspects of the industry (Climatewire, Sept. 29, 2021). Though their research has just begun, members of the panel said last month that they likely will be calling on the Biden administration to issue regulations to cut health care emissions (Climatewire, March 30).

HHS Secretary Becerra, too, has acknowledged that the department likely will have to write new policies and regulations to encourage the private sector to reduce emissions. That job would fall to the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, which the Biden administration created last fall (Climatewire, Sept. 13, 2021).

But HHS officials also have made clear that they need private industry buy-in to reduce health care sector emissions. Just this month, Levine and members of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity authored an article in The New England Journal of Medicine looking back at the officials’ experience at the U.N. Climate Change Conference last fall and discussing “putting heath and equity at the center of the climate movement.”

That paper acknowledged the need for regulations, but also said “government alone cannot make the massive changes required in the U.S. health sector,” describing new policies as going hand in hand with industry leadership.

“What is needed over the next year is the simultaneous mobilization of public and private organizations on multiple fronts,” the HHS authors wrote. “We can start with common aims for decarbonization and adaptation that prioritize the interests of vulnerable populations, and then provide a combination of supports and incentives that will ignite and bolster action.”

Environmental health experts are already applauding the pledge unveiled today.

“We have reached a transformative moment for the health sector, thanks to the Biden administration’s leadership,” said Gary Cohen, the founder of Health Care Without Harm. “The journey to a more just, low-carbon economy can accelerate with support from the sector whose mission it is to do no harm and heal.”

Gaurab Basu, who co-directs the Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy at Cambridge Health Alliance, agreed.

“We see clearly that climate action is the pathway to health equity, and we want our health institutions to lead,” he said. “Institutions that accept the HHS pledge will demonstrate that they understand the science and are serious about protecting their patients against the impacts of climate change. We must rise to the challenge.”

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