Green Bioethics
Henk ten Have & Bert Gordijn
Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy
School of Theology, Philosophy and Music

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a brief report entitled Summary on environment, climate change and health for WHO representatives and other country staff with an overview of possible measures to reduce environmental risks. It states that at the global level, environmental pollution and other environmental risks cause 24% of all deaths, which are largely preventable. The overview refers to actions and policies to address air pollution, water and sanitation, solid waste, chemicals, radiation, and climate change.

What has remained relatively underexposed for a long time is how healthcare itself is contributing to environmental degradation and climate change. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the problem of medical waste. While waste produced at healthcare facilities was already a problem before the pandemic, it increased by three to four times during the emergency resulting from vaccinations, testing and patient care. Recommended public health measures also resulted in 6 million extra tons of waste. In 2020, for example, 4.5 trillion disposable face masks were discarded by the public (WHO 2022). Recently, there is more attention for the negative impact of healthcare services on global environmental change. Their operations and supply chains contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and water scarcity.

Studies of the environmental footprint of healthcare produce a paradoxical outcome. Healthcare is needed to cope with the harmful and disease-producing effects of environmental degradation and climate change. Yet, increased healthcare efforts care themselves contribute to aggravate environmental and climate problems. Multilevel approaches have been implemented, requiring action from international bodies, governments, healthcare authorities, and professional organizations.