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Sustainability in the NHS: the criticality of data in achieving net zero

Despite the many well publicised issues facing health and care provision in the UK today, climate change continues to be a focus with long-term implications. In July 2022, the NHS reaffirmed its commitment to sustainability by becoming the first health system to embed net zero into legislation, with the Health and Care Act 2022.

As one of the largest organisations in the UK, reducing its carbon footprint through a national ‘Greener NHS’ programme will significantly decrease the country’s overall carbon emissions. Furthermore, NHS Scotland’s ‘Fairer, Greener Scotland Programme’, Northern Ireland’s review of climate change, and Green Health Wales are all aspiring for the same thing – to achieve net zero.

Implementing these carbon reduction measures will inevitably create large cost savings and enable the NHS to invest more keenly in delivering its overriding purpose of ‘putting the patient at the heart of all [they] do’. However, this is far from simple to achieve, especially considering that the areas requiring improvement are far reaching, including both direct and indirect emissions across supply chains, construction, staff commuting, citizen travel and accessing health and care in the home (to name just a few)!

This strategy for a Greener NHS is laudable, and of course, necessary. But as business and management guru Henry Mintzberg states, “strategy is not the consequence of planning: it’s a starting point.” So, how does an organisation such as the NHS, made up of a wide range of organisations with differing roles and responsibilities, plan for a more sustainable future?

Converting strategy to action
Without accurate measurements, it is impossible for health and care organisations to manage greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or to assess the success of sustainability initiatives. As such, the first step for any Trust or Board is to gather the appropriate data sets and emission factors.

This can be a bit of a task as it often involves understanding what data exists, what data is needed and where the gaps are. Once achieved however, you can establish a roadmap to net zero for both your directly and indirectly controlled emissions.

Tackling these initial steps then enables your organisation to effectively plan the required actions and interventions to achieve net zero. The next critical step is to create strong internal governance and outline a firm strategic approach to sustainability. This can be achieved using an ‘assess, plan, perform, sustain’ framework, which includes:

Reviewing and making improvements to data sets
Performing a gap analysis of the existing data management processes

Undertaking a greenhouse gas discovery exercise
Augmenting the presentation of emissions
Creating a robust data management plan to monitor emissions.

What gets measured, gets done
two consultants looking at a document together with model wind turbines
Having gained a clearer understanding of your data, you now have visibility of the baseline carbon footprint, along with a summary of your key emission contributing areas. This will help you implement key carbon saving initiatives to drive, measure and report on your progress toward net zero.

Whilst high level, these clear steps will help your health and care organisation:

Improve the governance of sustainability data
Improve data quality
Gain greater confidence in GHG gas assertions
Implement processes around GHG reporting
Provide a better understanding of scope 3 emissions
Gain confidence in addressing the right areas.

Working together to achieve a greener NHS
Our Health and Care Advisory team have significant insight into today’s health and care system, having over 100 years of combined experience working in the public sector. We are passionate about helping you overcome the challenges you, your staff and citizens face. Using our expertise in service design, financial stability, workforce health, organisational change, cultural change, sustainability and more, we will help you do things differently, and transform the way you deliver health and care services.

View our Health and care and Sustainability and climate change advisory webpages to find out more, or contact Lynne Huckerby to discuss how we can help you make the difference we all want to see within our health and care sector.