Saving lives doesn’t have to cost the Earth

by Stephen Riddle

Jamie Phares, managing director, The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), talks about how the healthcare industry needs to come together to reduce its environmental impact and further protect public health.

Scientists and environmentalists have long been sounding the alarm that our planet is facing a huge environmental crisis that is not under control. And it’s a crisis that is no less perilous than some of the health emergencies we have faced; the most recent, of course, being the COVID-19 pandemic.

Climate change is damaging human health across the world. In the EU alone, one in eight deaths, almost 600,000 deaths per year, were linked to environmental stressors according to latest WHO data available in 2012. The Lancet has referred to climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.

Climate change undermines many of the social determinants for good health, including jobs and livelihoods, availability of nutritious food, and equitable access to healthcare and social support structures. As the effects worsen, there will be wide and varying consequences for human health, such as malnutrition, the spread of vector-borne disease, respiratory illnesses attributable to air pollution, and the mass migration of climate refugees placing added strain on healthcare facilities.

All of this would disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and marginalized populations. Low- and middle-income countries will be hit hardest, as their geography often leaves them most vulnerable to climate shifts, but with an infrastructure that means they are least able to adapt. Just as animals are vulnerable to drastic changes to their habitats, humans suffer when their natural home is destroyed.

At the same time, healthcare itself – in the course of fulfilling its essential primary purpose – also has a huge environmental impact. If the health sector were a country, it would, in fact, be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet.

The healthcare industry must step up

Healthcare is about protecting and extending human lives – and taking steps to protect our environment is all part of that. As an industry, we can and must respond by reducing the impact of our research, manufacturing, delivery, disposal, and every step in between; as well as continuing to help treat and prevent diseases and illnesses directly caused by the climate crisis.

Across the healthcare ecosystem, we all play a part. From the energy required to run hospitals and healthcare facilities, to the production and refinement of chemicals required to develop medicines, fossil fuel consumption is at the heart of healthcare’s climate footprint. So, we must look to decarbonise our operations, to make our products and solutions more sustainable, and to continue to support those who are most affected. No company can do it alone, of course, and we need to work together as an industry to see lasting, positive results. If we want to remove paper patient leaflets from medicines or medical product boxes, for example, we need a unified approach that all companies can use, rather than each company creating their own disconnected systems.

At the heart of healthcare, there is a commitment to develop new life-changing medicines through scientific innovation. But the complex processes involved in developing medicines can be demanding of resources and require extreme heating or cooling, in addition to often requiring chemicals derived from fossil fuels. In order to continue delivering revolutionary medicines, the industry must progress from traditional synthetic processes to new ideas and methodologies – embracing the well-established 12 principles of green chemistry.

Climate change could drag more than 100 million people back into extreme poverty by 2030, with much of this reversal attributable to negative impacts on health. If we are to move against this reversal and truly pursue a healthier planet for all, the healthcare industry must support those most vulnerable through equitable access to medicines and resources.

Identifying sustainability goals

Healthy people need a healthy planet; that much seems obvious. So, as part of the world’s largest healthcare company, we are looking to continuously evolve, particularly with regard to protecting the environment and natural resources.

In line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which serve as the global framework for progress toward a more sustainable future for all, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has outlined our ‘Health for Humanity 2025 Goals’, including a key pillar on ‘Our Planet’. The ‘Our Planet’ goals focus on becoming more energy-, carbon- and water-efficient across our operations, products, and supply chain, while developing sustainable products that will ultimately contribute toward a healthier planet.

In Europe, all of J&J’s sites will be using 100% renewable electricity by 2023 – a huge step in our commitment to obtaining 100% of our global electricity needs from renewable sources by 2025. And, by 2030, we are striving to achieve carbon neutrality for our operations, and to reduce absolute upstream value chain emissions by 20% from 2016 levels.

In addition to specific sustainability commitments, we are also looking to implement other solutions. These include helping healthcare purchasers to consider the sustainability impact of not only the products they buy, but also of treatment modalities and delivery systems – exploring if, alongside the primary benefits to patients of a given medicine or mechanism, environmental sustainability can also become part of the value proposition.

Beyond urgent

Climate change is already having a devastating effect on our planet. And we know that we all have an urgent individual and collective responsibility to change habits and behaviours. As an industry, we’ve committed ourselves to tackling the world’s toughest health challenges, and this is one of the toughest yet. Healthcare, along with many – perhaps every – other industry, must take action now. The health of everyone, everywhere, and the health of the generations to come, depends on it.

About the author

Jamie Phares

Jamie PharesJamie Phares, managing director, The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.

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