Following the pledges by governments, businesses and even the NHS to reach a goal of ‘net zero’ emissions in order to help avoid the oncoming climate crisis, the first half of 2022 has seen these plans springing into action. In this blog, we take a look at some of the changes we are seeing in healthcare – from the overarching goals to the practical day to day changes, and how this is influencing marketing techniques.

What does it mean to be ‘net zero’?

Net zero is defined as the point at which the net output of greenhouse gasses is equal to zero. This can be achieved through completely eliminating emissions or – more commonly – reducing their output as far as possible before offsetting the remaining emissions through carbon absorption.1

With the climate crisis in a severe state, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and preserve a liveable planet, the global temperature increase must be limited to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.1 As described in the Paris agreement2, this will require a 45% reduction in global emissions by 2030 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

These targets trickle down to country-level (the UK has pledged to reach net zero by 20503), town-level (Sunderland aims to reach net zero by 20404) and even to specific organisations – including the NHS.

Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service

With the NHS currently responsible for 4% of England’s total carbon footprint,5 ambitious goals have been set out to deliver a net zero NHS by5:

  • 2040 for all care related activities – making the NHS the first net zero health system in the world5 (the NHS Carbon Footprint)
  • 2045 for the entire scope of NHS emissions (the NHS Carbon Footprint Plus)

The overarching NHS Net Zero strategy sets out these key targets, along with identifying the main areas for improvement across the organisation, which include: emissions from estates and facilities, travel and transport, the supply chain, and even specific medicines including inhalers and anaesthetic gasses.

On a more local level, NHS trusts and ICSs will then create their own ‘Green Plan’,6 setting out more specific goals for how they intend to support the wider NHS strategy. Ultimately, this trickle-down effect will influence decisions made around the care options available to the individual patient.

While this may be a controversial thought, not only is the limiting of global warming for the benefit of our environment, extreme climate change has the potential to cause harm to human health. This includes exacerbating health conditions such as respiratory or cardiovascular disease, along with increasing the risk of injuries due to extreme weather events.7

Which medications are the main offenders?

In the NHS’ Net Zero plan, two main examples are highlighted as medications that require huge changes in order to meet the emissions targets. These are anaesthetic gasses and respiratory inhalers.

Both medications are an interesting example of how HCPs will have to start considering greener choices within their medication recommendations for patients.

Within the NHS, a small number of medicines currently account for a large percentage of emissions, with anaesthetic gasses accounting for 2%, and inhalers currently responsible for 3% of the NHS’ total emissions output.5

Anaesthetic gasses

Anaesthetic gasses are an essential component for carrying out many procedures throughout the NHS. However, one of the most commonly used gasses – desflurane – is a big offender when it comes to carbon output. Using just one bottle of desflurane has the same global warming effect as burning 440kg of coal.8

The overarching goal for anaesthetic gasses is to lower their carbon footprint through better anaesthetic practices – in particular, through encouraging the use of the alternative sevoflurane gas.8

To raise awareness of the issue and to promote this change in behaviour amongst anaesthetists, engagement materials have been created, including colour coded prompts for the different gasses and fact sheets that can be displayed on the anaesthetic machines.5

Respiratory inhalers

Currently, the two most popular types of inhaler on the market include pressurised metered-dose inhalers (pDMIs), and dry-powder inhalers (DPIs), with the propellant used in pDMIs currently being the biggest culprit in terms of emissions. In a wider environmental sense, current inhaler styles also pose a large issue in terms of plastic waste, as when the medication runs out, the whole inhaler must then be disposed of and replaced.

Proposed measures for improving the sustainability of inhalers include5:

  • Significantly increasing the use of DPIs or alternate inhaler types that don’t require the use of a greenhouse gas propellant
  • Introducing schemes to promote the sustainable disposal of inhalers
  • A focus and promoting the innovation of new forms of inhaler that address these key issues

With the former two options requiring involvement on an HCP/ practice level, they are also becoming a focus for both pharma companies and marketing agencies.

How have these wider goals impacted marketing campaigns?

A big trend we have been noticing over the past year is the idea of sustainability as a selling point. With HCPs being encouraged to consider the sustainability of their choices when it comes to medications – this becomes a strong differentiating factor between brands and products. Consequently, detail aids are increasingly including a dedicated section on environmental impact, and pharma companies are having to rethink sustainability throughout the whole process of manufacturing and marketing their products.

In this regard, healthcare marketing agencies are not exempt from the push towards net zero. With pharma companies being more considered about the environmental impacts of the businesses they work with throughout the product lifecycle, agencies need to be more considered in the design of marketing campaigns from the outset, along with their own sustainability credentials.

One way that agencies can promote themselves in this regard is through undertaking an external evaluation. In January this year, we posted a blog about our Silver EcoVadis rating. We have found this to be incredibly useful to differentiate ourselves in pitches as an agency that takes sustainability and net zero seriously.

It will be interesting to see where these net zero goals take our marketing campaigns in the future. Will we continue to lean more into digital? Will in-person congresses that promote long-distance travel, or physical leave pieces become a thing of the past? With the COVID-19 pandemic already revolutionising our industry since the turn of the decade, what influence will this next, looming global crisis have?

For more insights on human health, digital healthcare, marketing best practice and much more, visit our blog

  1. United Nations. Net Zero Coalition. Resource. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  2. United Nations. Paris Agreement.; Published 2015. Resource. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  3. HM Government. Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener. Resource. Published 2021. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  4. City of Sunderland. Low Carbon Framework.; 2020. Resource. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  5. NHS England. Delivering a “Net Zero” National Health Service. July 2022. Resource. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  6. NHS England. How to produce a Green Plan: A three-year strategy towards net zero. 2021;6. Resource. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  7. CDC. Climate Effects on Health. Resource. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  8. NHS England. Putting anaesthetic-generated emissions to bed. Resource. Accessed September 28, 2022.

Posted by Rebecca Dargue
Health Science Content Writer

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