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Net zero NHS – what are the plans and where are we now?

With the NHS becoming the world's first health service to embed net zero into legislation last year, we explore the ambitions, the challenges and what the net zero roadmap means for suppliers.
Published on
May 15, 2023

In July 2022, the NHS became the world’s first health system to embed net zero into legislation, as part of the Health and Care Act 2022. This followed on from the NHS announcing in October 2020 its commitment to being the world’s first health service to reach carbon net zero.

The importance of reaching net zero – and its impact on the wider sustainability goals of addressing climate change for future generations – is widely accepted. We are also committed to this goal, with our own sustainability strategy having a keen focus on environmental protection.

But what are the NHS targets, how do they affect suppliers and how realistic and achievable are the ambitions? In this blog, we take a closer look.

The world’s first net zero national health service

The ambition is certainly a commendable one and comes after the NHS established a net zero expert panel to review almost 600 pieces of evidence and conduct comprehensive analysis and modelling to understand when and how the NHS can realistically reach this target.

As the NHS itself acknowledges, identifying a route to net zero emissions for such a large, labyrinthine system brings with it several challenges. Despite this, it describes its targets as being ‘as ambitious as possible’ while also remaining realistic. It says these ambitions are backed by immediate action and ‘a commitment to continuous monitoring, evaluation and innovation’.

The institution has set two targets:

  • to reach net zero by 2040 for the emissions it can control directly (otherwise known as the NHS Carbon Footprint), with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2028 to 2032;
  • and to reach net zero by 2045 for the emissions it can influence (the NHS Carbon Footprint Plus), with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2036 to 2039.

This is part of the UK’s wider plans to reach net zero by 2050, by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 100% from 1990 levels.

What about suppliers?

It’s well known the NHS relies on a wide source of suppliers and it’s therefore no surprise they will have a major role to play to help the organisation meet its net zero targets.

A roadmap was approved by the NHS England Public Board in September 2021 to help suppliers align with the NHS’s net zero ambition between now and 2030. As a result, it’s already the case that all NHS procurements include a minimum 10% net zero and social value weighting, while for all contracts above £5 million per year, suppliers are required to publish a Carbon Reduction Plan for their UK Scope 1 and 2 emissions and a subset of scope 3 emissions as a minimum.

From April 2024, the NHS will extend the requirement for a Carbon Reduction Plan to cover all procurements, while from April 2027 all suppliers will be required to publicly report targets, emissions, and publish a Carbon Reduction Plan for global emissions aligned to the NHS net zero target, for all of their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

Further to this, from April 2028, there will be new requirements introduced overseeing the provision of carbon foot printing for individual products supplied to the NHS. And lastly, from 2030, suppliers will only be able to qualify for NHS contracts if they can demonstrate ‘their progress through published progress reports and continued carbon emissions reporting through the Evergreen sustainable supplier assessment’.

While the NHS strongly encourages all suppliers to prepare for the above milestones, it also recognises that not all suppliers are the same and that some will face more barriers than others in meeting the requirements.

It says support will be available for Small & Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and Voluntary, Community & Social Enterprises (VCSEs) at each stage of the roadmap, while a two-year grace period will be available for SMEs and VCSEs on key future milestones and requirements.

It’s fair to say that many suppliers are already on a journey towards sustainability – and if they aren’t already, the net zero plans will surely prompt a wave of suppliers to take stock of their emissions and their sustainability goals. At the same time, the above is a lot for suppliers – especially SMEs – to achieve, which is why it’s promising that support is available.

Where are we now?

At the beginning of the year, the BMA said more support was needed from UK governments to help the NHS reach its net zero targets.

While it acknowledged some good progress had been made in the NHS being less carbon-intensive and more sustainable, it also said this progress was in danger of stalling and called on governments across the UK to up their support for NHS organisations – who are one of the main contributors to public sector emissions – to help them ‘achieve sustainability goals’ and ‘keep up momentum in reducing their carbon footprint’.

At the same time, National Health Executive and E.ON Energy came together to hold a webinar offering a practical guide to achieving net zero, while others have talked of the need to fully electrify the NHS’s fleet of vehicles to lead the charge towards a greener future.

Meanwhile, a recent study found that single-use surgical items make up two-thirds of the carbon footprint of the five most common NHS operations, with researchers suggesting that better waste management and using reusable items where possible could aid in slashing emissions.

The research, which observed operations across three sites at University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust, found that 68% of the carbon contributions came from single use, in particular plastic items such as gowns and drapes for patients and instrument tables.

Although exact data on how well the NHS is doing in meeting its net-zero targets is hard to come by, there are plenty of examples of net zero in action, and a cursory search on social media shows how many individuals and groups are dedicated to achieving it.

What’s more, as the largest employer in Britain and Europe, the NHS can set a great example for other major employers and industries and be a leader in the public sector. All action, however small, by employees, organisations and suppliers working in the NHS, can make a considerable difference to achieving the goal of net zero. Do you know how your organisation is working towards reducing its carbon emissions?

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