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Healthcare inequalities could be exacerbated by net zero efforts

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Efforts to reduce carbon emissions from healthcare to net zero risks exacerbating existing unfair health inequalities between the rich and the poor, a group of global health researchers have said.

The NHS in England has committed to ambitious net-zero targets – an 80 per cent reduction in emissions under its direct control by 2028-2032 and across the supply chain by 2036-39, reaching net zero by 2040 and 2045 respectively.

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the researchers said that the most deprived people typically have poorer health, a lower life expectancy, and consume a greater amount of health services.

Given healthcare consumption is the ultimate driver of healthcare emissions, they write, this has important implications in terms of justice for the pursuit of net zero healthcare.

Lead author Dr Anand Bhopal, a PhD research fellow at the Bergen Centre for Ethics and Priority Setting, said: “Lifetime health costs among the poorest people are 10-20 per cent higher than the least deprived. It seems likely that individual healthcare carbon footprints also follow a social gradient, with emissions highest amongst the worst-off.”

The researchers added that healthcare carbon emissions represent almost a fifth of the per capita healthcare carbon footprint among the poorest people, compared with under a fiftieth among the richest.

The net zero agenda involves transforming how the NHS delivers care and changing the behaviour of individuals. Reducing carbon emissions within the healthcare system involves trade-offs since a re-allocation of resources may displace spending from more cost-effective health interventions.

The researchers consider if those with the greatest means and total emissions caused outside the healthcare system should shoulder the responsibility to reduce their carbon footprint.

They give the example of a return flight from London to New York which incurs four times the NHS’ per capita carbon footprint or almost the annual total emissions of an individual in the poorest decile.

“Those who depend on the public healthcare system, and who risk the most if health gains are sacrificed due to already existing health inequity, may find it doubly unfair to carry the burden of reducing carbon emissions,” Dr Bhopal added.

The government recently faced criticism from the Public Accounts Committee for ‘significant failings’ in the way it managed PPE contracts for the NHS during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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