Every year, environmental factors claim the lives of approximately 13 million people globally, accounting for one-fifth of total deaths. This sobering statistic underscores the undeniable truth — environmental issues represent the most significant health threat facing humanity today. While many nations and institutions have recognised the vulnerability of the healthcare sector to these environmental challenges, resource allocation tells a different story. Shockingly, less than 2 per cent of multilateral climate finance is directed toward projects aimed at addressing these critical issues.
The intricate interplay between climate change and health is a complex web of cause and effect. It originates from the daily activities we undertake — from transportation to industrial growth, energy consumption and even animal husbandry. These actions release pollutants such as CO2, methane and particulates into the environment, eventually culminating in temperature rise, air pollution, floods, droughts and other environmental crises. The chain reaction sets the stage for mass-scale diseases such as respiratory, cardiovascular, cancer, vector-borne, waterborne, newborn, mental and heat-related illnesses, besides forced migrations.
However, it’s crucial to recognise that the relationship between health and climate change is a two-way street. While we are aware of how climate change impacts health, we must equally acknowledge how the healthcare sector contributes to this global challenge. This interlinkage gives rise to the concept of health co-benefits which is nothing but the potential synergy between addressing climate change by the healthcare sector and in the process, enhancing good health.
The healthcare industry is responsible for approximately 4.5 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. This mainly manifests across three major sources: supply chains (c.60-70 per cent), energy sources (c. 10-15 per cent) and emissions generated by healthcare facilities (15-20 per cent). Therefore, climate change mitigation actions have the potential to trigger substantial health co-benefits.
These benefits can be divided into four key categories: (a) Diet – moving away from meat, and dairy products to plant-based food, (b) Housing/Buildings – with good provisions for ventilation, insulation, waste management etc. (c) Transport – adding more walks, cycling and low emission vehicles to daily life and (d) Energy Usage – move to renewals and energy conserving appliances.
Forward-thinking healthcare companies are initiating climate resilience programs that tackle immediate needs while addressing systemic challenges. This dual-pronged approach involves both mitigation and adaptation strategies. Adaptation focuses on minimising climate change impacts, while mitigation works to reduce their causes. Both strategies are essential for building a resilient and sustainable healthcare system that can withstand environmental challenges.
Mitigation strategies in healthcare involve reducing greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact. This encompasses adopting energy-efficient technologies, employing renewable energy, minimising waste through proper management, designing sustainable healthcare buildings and promoting eco-friendly transportation options. These concerted efforts aim to shrink the healthcare sector’s contribution to climate change, promoting a more sustainable future.
Adaptation strategies within the healthcare sector revolve around preparing for and responding to changing environmental conditions. This involves enhancing infrastructure against extreme weather events, developing emergency preparedness plans, implementing disease prevention measures related to climate-sensitive illnesses, creating heat action initiatives, and ensuring access to clean water. Collectively, these strategies safeguard public health and healthcare services from the adverse effects of a changing climate.
The integration of climate adaptation and mitigation strategies in healthcare presents an exciting investment landscape. Whether driven by financial motives, ethical considerations, or a blend of both, investors have a wide array of opportunities to engage in a rapidly evolving sector addressing pressing challenges faced by healthcare. Climate and healthcare-dedicated funds are emerging, promoting investments in climate-mitigating and adapting healthcare models that yield substantial financial returns and significant healthcare co-benefits.
Emerging healthcare models that seamlessly blend mitigation and adaptation strategies offer exciting investment prospects. These opportunities not only contribute to global climate change mitigation efforts but also align with the growing demand for sustainability, potentially yielding long-term financial benefits and risk reduction. By prioritizing environmentally conscious practices and technologies, investors can wield their influence to shape a more sustainable and resilient healthcare sector.
These opportunities span across all the key segments of healthcare starting with hospital and diagnostics; pharma and med devices; food; health financing; ancillary products and services. Some of the relevant businesses under hospital and diagnostics companies include digital therapeutics, virtual care, surveillance screening, home healthcare services, and AI-based diagnosis. Pharmaceutical and medical device segments offer opportunities in eco-friendly and climate-resistant packaging, health tracking devices, green chemistry models, IOT energy and maintenance trackers and sustainable raw material and supply chains. The food sector comprises opportunities related to organic fortified foods and plant-based alternatives whereas health financing offers avenues such as behavior-linked plans. Other ancillary products and services could include modular climate-resistant building and furniture modules, testing and certification labs etc.
Apart from the above, there are many other indirect opportunities that offer strong propositions to deliver tremendous value to good health and climate protection. By implementing sustainable strategies within the healthcare sector, the industry has the chance to make a lasting impact on both fronts. These new investments are essential in the area and have the potential to create a positive feedback loop, promoting a healthier planet and a more resilient healthcare sector for generations to come.
(The writer is National Lead, NATHEALTH Foundation and Partner, Quadria Capital. Views are personal.)