Climate emergency: hospitals need to move faster to renewable energy


By Mardi Chapman

12 Aug 2021

Australian public hospitals need to do more to reduce their non-renewable energy use, especially given the intergenerational adverse health outcomes associated with climate change.

According to a Perspective article in The MJA, public hospitals consume over half of public sector energy in most Australian states and territories.

An analysis of energy use in almost 700 public hospitals across three consecutive years found total energy use was stable from 2016 to 2019. Grid electricity comprised about 60% of total energy use and natural gas about 35%.

Over the study period, renewable energy production/purchase by public hospitals increased from 0.3% to 2.3% of total power consumed. Australian renewable grid electricity uptake grew from 15.7% to 24% over the same period.

“The vast majority of hospital efforts over-and-above national grid renewable electricity supply arose from a single state, Queensland Health’s GreenPower purchase in 2018/19 which contributed ¾ of all Australian public hospital renewable electricity.”

The authors, Dr Hayden Burch, Dr Matthew Anstey and Dr Forbes McGain, said hospital energy efficiency initiatives and rooftop solar panels were not enough to make a significant difference and instead “…we need to transition to renewable electricity sources”.

“We recognise these solutions will require a degree of financial investment to kickstart (and expect a future return), and this can be difficult when hospitals are under pressure to balance their yearly budgets just to provide patient care.”

“Nevertheless, the healthcare sector could use its market influence to purchase increasing amounts of renewable energy.”

They said health care was “woefully behind” other economic sectors such as tertiary education.

Massive polluters

First author Dr Burch, a junior doctor at Northern Health, told the limbic health care was unfortunately a massive polluter.

“If you combine all of Australian health care together, the carbon footprint is about 7% of Australia’s total carbon footprint. That is a larger contributor than all of the economic activity of a population about the size of South Australia.”

“As a sector, we have patients coming through the door of a hospital needing treatment for diseases influenced or impacted by climate change yet we are then contributing towards those very diseases which we are seeking to manage and treat.”

He said there were some positive examples of change including the new Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide which has been announced as an entirely electric build.

Similarly, an extension on The Canberra Hospital is planned as all-elective and powered with 100% renewable electricity.

He said all-electric builds meant all hospital operations could be powered through renewable electricity.

“Then that massive gas component isn’t something you need to deal with in 2049 just in time to meet any 2050 target.”

“Victoria and NSW are the big consumers of public hospital energy so it’s really Victoria and NSW health systems and health professionals that need to be advocating for our health system to not be harming our patients through the environmental impacts.”

Dr Burch said planning was underway for a brand new hospital in Melbourne’s Arden St and redevelopment of the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

“Clinicians at Royal Melbourne are advocating right now to say we need to build our hospital from the outset as an all-electric build.”

He said health care professionals, who prides themselves on evidence-based practice, need to listen to the science in relation to climate change.

“We’ve spent the last 18 months listening to the evidence base and the science in regards to responding to COVID-19. Climate change is a health emergency and the harms from this are going to be catastrophic unless doctors take action now as we have in the past for tobacco and other public health issues.”

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