Reducing healthcare’s climate footprint to enhance the triple bottom line

October 11, 2023

While healthcare providers, clinics and hospitals aim to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities, there does exist a major contradiction in the sector. And that is the huge impact on the environment and the potential threat to human health of the waste generated by healthcare. In 2019, in Ireland, at least one third of healthcare risk waste is recyclables or general waste, which is collected and incinerated at great expense, releasing significant amounts of harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

So there is an onus on the healthcare system to reduce its carbon footprint, thereby improving people’s health, positively impacting profit margins, and in turn reducing its negative effects on the environment and the planet. 

The size of the healthcare climate footprint

According to Healthcare Without Harm, an international NGO that seeks to transform the health sector worldwide so that it becomes ecologically sustainable, the healthcare climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4% of global net emissions (2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent). Indirect emissions from purchased energy sources such as electricity, steam, cooling, and heating comprise 12% of those emissions.

“Health sector facilities are the operational heart of service delivery, protecting health, treating patients, and saving lives. Yet health sector facilities are also a source of carbon emissions, contributing to climate change. The world’s health sector facilities churn out CO2 through the use of significant resources and energy-hungry equipment. This is perhaps ironic — as medical professionals our commitment is to ‘first, do no harm.’ Places of healing should be leading the way, not contributing to the burden of disease.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus,

Director General, World Health Organization

Health Care Without Harm

Climate-Smart Healthcare series

Green Paper Number One

The combustion of fossil fuels makes up well over half of healthcare’s climate footprint.

The energy efficiency challenges for healthcare buildings

Hospitals and nursing homes especially face some unavoidable challenges in terms of energy efficiency. 

Their 24/7 nature: Hospitals and nursing homes function right around the clock, throughout the year. Patients need around-the-clock care and their life depends on a whole array of life supporting equipment. This is the major difference with building in other industries. Hospitals and nursing homes must always be up and running in terms of energy. The health and safety of all patients and employees are on the line (contamination, heating, equipment, etc.). Healthcare facilities expansion: Over the years, lots of hospitals and nursing homes have expanded their establishments and added new wings to increase patient capacity or add new departments. These newly expanded areas usually have different energy infrastructure to the older ones.

Increased energy efficiency and decarbonisation

One of the most effective ways of reducing carbon emissions is through energy efficiency and examining how buildings being used in the provision of healthcare services can be improved.

Becoming more energy efficient and reducing energy use can start with small steps such as staff training, switching to high efficiency light bulbs, and turning off lights in unattended areas. But the bigger steps are the ones that impact bottom lines the most, and greatly reduce a facility’s impact on the environment in the long run - incorporating low-carbon or net zero emissions design in new healthcare buildings, or the retrofitting and refurbishment of existing ones. The latter will reduce the costs of the materials required to complete construction, and reduce the energy it would take to build an entirely new structure.

The elements of an energy efficient healthcare building

Location: Often, healthcare buildings such as hospitals and clinics are already close to good public transport links. This improves the likelihood that patients and workers will not need to rely on their own cars to get to and from the building. The other aspect, quite literally, is the building’s orientation and if windows can or potentially could take advantage of natural light and sunlight, which can save on energy use for heating.

Size: Having to accommodate large numbers of in-patients and out-patients each day means healthcare buildings are larger by nature. This will make them more expensive and energy-intensive to heat and cool, but there are ways to offset this. Larger patient room windows bring in more natural light, improving patient experience and satisfaction. Using building information modelling (BIM) and building performance modelling, we can simulate how various window sizes, glazing types and window orientations will impact energy efficiency.

Heating and cooling: A huge proportion of the running costs of a healthcare facility is in heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC). A high-efficiency HVAC system is central in an energy efficient building. Upgrading an existing building’s insulation with a quality product reduces the risk of hot or cold air escaping, helping to save on energy expenditure. Triple-pane and low-emissivity windows can help insulate and protect the building further.

Energy efficient lighting: LED lighting uses about 50% less electricity, lasts longer, and performs better in cold temperatures. This lighting can be paired with automatic dimmers with sensors that allow you to take advantage of natural sunlight during the day when it is bright, using less electricity. Occupancy sensors are particularly effective in healthcare settings and hospitals where some areas are highly populated in the day with very little foot traffic during the night. 

Solar power: Castle Hill Hospital became the first hospital in the UK in 2022 to run solely on renewable energy, provided by its very own solar panel field. During the longer days of the spring and summer months, the panels generate enough electricity to meet the complete daytime power needs of the entire site. The power used to deliver patients’ radiotherapy treatment sessions, to support many life-saving surgical procedures, and to keep its intensive care unit running all comes from completely self-generated, green electricity.

Benefit of energy efficiency on health and wellbeing

Buildings produced or refurbished with sustainability in mind have been shown to improve the engagement, productivity, and health and safety of occupants. Savings can be made in not only energy consumption, but in the cost of operational and maintenance costs.

Sustainability in healthcare building design

The sustainability team at Metec has been hand-picked for their passion, qualifications and experience in the areas of building performance, sustainability, energy savings over the lifecycle of the building, and perhaps even more importantly, the experience of its occupiers.

If you would like to know more about energy efficient building design and the benefits of sustainable design, contact Scott Caldwell, Head of Sustainability at Metec, today.

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