Briefing paper

The global healthcare sector is a major contributor to climate change, with a carbon footprint equivalent to the fifth-largest emitting country on the planet. Australia’s healthcare system is no exception, producing 7% of national carbon emissions or equivalent to half of the emissions of the entire Australian construction sector. To meet Australia’s domestic and international commitments to carbon emissions reduction, and ensure better environmental outcomes, the Australian healthcare sector will have a key role to play in mitigating its own impact. However, there is currently a lack of domestic initiatives which will make a substantial difference to the sector’s carbon footprint, and little data is being collected at any level to inform changes in practice.

Delivery of care, that is medical devices, consumables, and pharmaceuticals, is estimated to account for the majority of the sector’s total emissions, rather than energy consumption or capital costs. Low value healthcare which provides little value, or may even harm consumers, has an estimated prevalence of approximately one third of care provided, and so it is a significant source of negative environmental impact. The identification and elimination of sources of low value care is an opportunity to reduce avoidable emissions from the health sector in a direct and immediate way.

In Australia, there is little data collected and reported on the carbon footprint of specific healthcare goods and services. While the opportunities for emissions reductions in low value care are significant, more data is needed to understand the carbon footprint of healthcare provision if more environmentally sustainable ways of providing high value care are to be found and implemented. The collection and reporting of the lifecycle carbon footprint of healthcare at both an aggregate level and at the level of individual care decisions provides the foundation for effective interventions and targeted mitigation strategies.

To date, the scope of incentives for emissions reduction in the Australian healthcare sector has mostly been limited to action by state governments, local health organisations, and individual clinicians. This action has largely focused on efficiencies in emissions contributors such as energy usage. The collection of more detailed data on the lifecycle carbon footprint of healthcare could broaden the incentives to reduce the emissions from clinical care as the majority source of emissions in the sector. This could improve the carbon literacy of key decisionmakers in healthcare, to inform clinical decisions, and investment and disinvestment decisions in high value, low carbon healthcare.

This brief highlights the current gaps in understanding of the healthcare sector’s contribution to Australia’s carbon footprint. It focuses on the environmental impact of the delivery of care as the major source of emissions which is not reflected in emissions reductions policies. It identifies the need to reduce low value care, including current areas of interest for reform. It describes how better data collection and reporting on the carbon footprint of healthcare can be harnessed to inform and incentivise sector-wide reform for a more environmentally sustainable and high-quality healthcare system.

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Deeble Institute Issues Brief 48