As Boston and the nation build back from the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s leading healthcare institutions are already turning their attention to preventing and preparing for the next public health emergency: the climate crisis.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the sense of urgency to prioritize equitable climate leadership,” said Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, Boston’s chief of environment, energy, and open space. “Our healthcare facilities are on the frontlines of treating residents who experience illnesses caused by our emissions – that direct experience gives them a mandate to work alongside the city towards carbon neutrality, make their buildings efficient, and commit to the further protection of Boston residents, their health, and their communities for years to come.”
Rising global temperatures are leading to increased illnesses, changes in disease prevalence, and negative health impacts of more frequent extreme weather events — and those who suffer end up in the emergency room. At the same time, healthcare operations contribute significantly to climate change and the very diseases it is trying to treat: The healthcare sector is responsible for nearly 8.5% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with hospitals generating one-third of those emissions.
“Healthcare organizations have an obligation to improve the health and well-being of patients and the communities we serve,” said Anne Klibanski, MD, President and CEO of Mass General Brigham and the GRC’s Health Care Working Group co-chair. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will create healthier environments for people and help prevent public health crises before they happen. We are proud to partner with the Green Ribbon Commission on this important work.”
According to the report, local health facilities have cut emissions by 18% from 2011 through 2019, despite serving more patients and expanding health care facility space by 10%.
These pollution reductions are equivalent to eliminating 195 million miles traveled by an average passenger vehicle and, according to Health Care Without Harm’s Energy and Climate Impact Calculator, have reduced the social costs – human health and climate change-related impacts – of health care’s energy use by over $20.5 million per year.
The report outlines the Boston health care sector’s collective progress towards the climate goals shared by the City of Boston and the GRC – cutting GHG emissions 50% by 2030, and 100% by 2050.
“Today’s report shows that hospitals in Boston are doing their part to reduce climate emissions through innovative approaches to energy management, improvements in energy efficiency and large-scale renewable energy purchases,” said Kate Walsh, Boston Medical Center Health System’s president and CEO and the GRC’s Health Care Working Group co-chair. “By focusing on sustainability, we are prioritizing the health of our patients and communities beyond our hospital walls.”
The report singles out a shift to renewable and zero-carbon energy on the part of several major institutions as the largest contributor to the reductions to date.
“The efforts of leading health care institutions like Boston Medical Center and Mass General Brigham to shift to clean energy are already paying off for our health and our environment,” said Winston Vaughan, Health Care Without Harm’s director of climate solutions, and the report’s author. “Many other Boston hospitals are exploring opportunities to tap into the new offshore wind farms being developed off our coast and other clean energy projects to help get off of fossil fuels and cut their emissions.”
However, the report notes, while Boston hospitals have made significant cuts to their emissions in recent years, those reductions are not yet on a trajectory that would allow the sector to meet the levels of reduction needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees as called for by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the goals articulated by the City of Boston. It also goes on to identify biomedical research laboratories, which make up 12% of the city’s health sector’s real estate, as a promising area for future energy efficiency efforts.
While the report shows that a sector-wide shift to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, combined with ambitious energy efficiency and electrification efforts will allow the sector to achieve a 50% reduction by 2030, there are significant challenges to achieving full decarbonization in the sector by 2050. Many Boston hospitals rely on central steam plants and combined heat and power systems. While highly efficient, these systems are powered by the combustion of fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, and there is not yet a clear pathway or timeline to replace or transition to a zero-carbon fuel.
“It’s encouraging to see data showing Boston hospitals are making real strides in reducing carbon emissions,” said John Cleveland, the Boston Green Ribbon Commission’s executive director. “At the same time, it’s clear that hospitals are willing to explore new strategies and technologies to further cut emissions. As we move toward a carbon free future, these measurement milestones will help keep the focus on what’s needed from the city, state, federal government, and the private sectors, such as support in decarbonizing our district energy systems.”
“Tackling climate change is an opportunity to reshape Boston’s world-class health care institutions, and the proud city they serve,” added Vaughan. “Overcoming the challenges ahead will require leadership, innovation, and collaboration but that’s what Boston does best.”