In health sector, surgery is major contributor to climate change

Surgery is resource intensive and contributes substantially to greenhouse-gas emissions within the health sector, according to a Lancet article co-authored by Aaron Bernstein. And as lifesaving procedures become increasingly available around the world, the climate impact could get worse.

“We do need to get more people surgical care,” said Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE), in a November 17, 2020 WJCT article about the Lancet piece. “But if we do it in a model that has been developed in rich countries, it will break the climate—and we can’t afford that.”

According to the WJCT article, operating rooms can use three to six times more energy per square foot than elsewhere in a hospital; produce 20% to 30% of a facility’s waste and a third of its biohazard waste; and use anesthetic gases such as nitrous oxide that contribute to greenhouse emissions. But Bernstein and his co-authors wrote that there are ways of reducing energy use and waste in surgery, such as by turning off heating, ventilation, and air conditioning in operating rooms when they’re not in use, or by using anesthetics that are injected instead of inhaled.

The Lancet authors called for the surgical, obstetric, and anesthesia community to play a key role in developing ways to reduce resource use in surgery. Bernstein told WJCT that it’s “absolutely” possible to increase access to surgical care without further exacerbating the climate crisis. “There are real windows into the future of sustainable health care in surgical practice,” he said.

Read the WJCT article: More People Can Access Surgery. That’s Great For Them, Awful For The Planet

Read the Lancet article: Climate change: challenges and opportunities to scale up surgical, obstetric, and anaesthesia care globally