American researchers have estimated that the US health care sector is responsible for "nearly a tenth" of the nation's carbon emissions. This is almost triple the amount emitted by aviation and around four times that emitted by the IT industry, suggesting that green groups should shift the focus of their advocacy.
"The health care sector, in general, may be a bit slower than other sectors to put this on their radar screen,” says Jeanette Chung PhD, a medical scientist at Chicago Uni, who carried out the research together with colleague Dr David Meltzer.
Chung and Meltzer say that American healthcare, including activities such as hospitals, scientific research and the production and distribution of pharmaceutical drugs, was found to produce eight per cent of the country’s total carbon emissions. By contrast the US aviation sector is responsible for around three per cent and IT is usually assessed at around two per cent.
Despite the fact that hospitals and health care are directly damaging the environment far more than airliners or gadgets, campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace tend to focus their efforts mostly on the latter.
The health sector, by contrast, tends to get a free ride. Indeed, in Blighty there has lately been an occasional tendency for doctors to start chiding their patients for destroying the planet, hypocritical of them as this now turns out to be.
"Given the focus on health care policy and environmental policy, it might be interesting - if not wise - to start accounting for environmental externalities in health care,” speculates Chung.
The airline industry is already doing so - some aviation executives believe that carbon penalties could edge out maintenance to become the second-biggest cost in running a jet, and serious research is going into more fuel-efficient aircraft at the moment.
But the medics, responsible for far more carbon and eco-destruction, are already hugely expensive. (The US healthcare system accounts for fully 16 per cent of GDP; the somewhat more efficient - in terms of results for money - British NHS still costs a crippling £100bn+ annually.) As Chung hints, any move to make the health sector act as responsibly as airlines or IT would probably render it unsupportably pricey.
So it might be, despite today's revelations, that green activism will continue to focus on comparatively insignificant emitters and leave the healthcare sector alone.
Chung and Meltzer's research is published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. ®