For years, Australia has been an anomaly in the world of climate change. It regularly experiences some of the world's most damaging environmental disasters, which are worsening as a result of climate change. At the same time, years of soft climate policy, overreliance on fossil fuels, and the enormous lobbying power of Australian fossil fuel companies meant the country—and its health system—was contributing heavily to climate change.
This was out of step with the rest of the OECD countries, who have been—slowly—rolling out policies to cut emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.
Because of the Australian government's laggard approach to investing in environmentally sustainable health care, the burden of operationalizing any commitments fell to individual organizations. But without the financial backing or political oversight of the federal government, Australia's health system remains a significant contributor to the country's high emissions levels. Now, all that could change.
Climate change is back on the agenda. This is our final warning to get ahead.
This year's election was dubbed the "climate change election" given how much weight climate change policy has in the eyes of the electorate. In fact, the lack of climate change policy from the outgoing Liberal-National coalition has caused many people to switch political allegiances to support the incoming Labor government, or independent candidates who have a stronger anti-climate stance. This is especially true in rural areas that were hit hardest by the 2019-2020 bushfires, which rarely vote for Labor.
The people have spoken. Strong climate change policy is now a non-negotiable for successful governments. And that makes tackling climate change a non-negotiable for health care.
The health sector is responsible for 7% of Australia's emissions. So, if the country wants to achieve its long-term targets, the health care sector will be near the top of the list for change. The same applies to any country—including the US—that wants to mitigate the effects of climate change.
And this means that soon, health care will see increasingly ambitious plans and directives to get the sector to net zero emissions, as well as increased funding and the introduction of mandates and incentives for organizations that hit emissions targets.
This will be incredibly disruptive if organizations have not started this journey. Health care organizations must get a head start now. Otherwise, they will be subject to onerous regulations that they are unprepared for.
The entire health care ecosystem needs to be ready.
How can your organization prepare for what's to come?
Health care organizations need to be in a place to rapidly respond to governmental directives around climate change, wherever they are in the world. This means doing the following:
- Ensure your emissions and waste data collection and reporting is up to scratch. At minimum, every organization must track and report its annual energy and water usage across its entire footprint. Benchmarking tools can help translate these figures to greenhouse gas emissions.
- Create and execute a roadmap to environmental sustainability that addresses and solicits input from key stakeholders:
- Regulatory/governmental authority
- Research and invest in high-impact 'low-hanging fruit' strategies that will reduce your organization's footprint at minimal cost and friction. For example:
- Retrofit high efficiency boilers
- Procure reusable or biodegradable PPE and medical implements
- Install water conservation solutions
The responsibility shouldn't fall on the shoulders of your staff. Environmental sustainability is the responsibility of everyone, especially health care leaders. Leaders must be bold, vocal, and empathetic if they are to drive positive organizational change toward environmental sustainability.
This is your last chance to get ahead of future mandates around climate impact. You must act now if you want to stem the disruption you will see when they come.