Thanks to young people like Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish school girl who has spoken to world leaders at the United Nations, and the Extinction Rebellion movement, it feels like more of the world has woken up to the threats of climate change on our planet, and on our health. In Newcastle, we think it’s time for the NHS to step up as well. I’m delighted to say that recently our Board agreed that Newcastle Hospitals should adopt a leadership position and become the first NHS trust in the country to declare a climate emergency.

It’s widely accepted that humans have already caused irreversible temperature change, and there is an increasing realisation that the changes which Governments have committed to in the past will not be enough to halt this global overheating.

This serves as a stark reminder that we can all make a contribution to protecting our planet and our future health. By reducing our energy consumption, making more sustainable travel choices, minimising single use plastics and being more mindful about the resources we use, we can make a difference – and we all have a personal responsibility to do that.

Our declaration means that we’re joining with our civic partners in Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University in committing to take action about our organisations, and our city’s, impact on the world. Together we have committed to improving the health, wealth and wellbeing of our local population and tackling climate change is a shared priority for us all.

Importantly, we haven’t produced a 45 point action plan before we took the step to make our declaration. Instead we decided to be brave and take a leap of faith, knowing that it was the right thing to do for both population and planetary health.

We have committed us to becoming a carbon neutral organisation by 2040, ten years ahead of the current legal requirement and NHS long-term plan commitment. It sends a clear message that we recognise – and give weight to – the threat that climate breakdown poses to public health. We want to lead and encourage the rest of the NHS in committing to fast-tracking our plans to achieve carbon neutrality.

This is an area that we’ve been building for some time. We have a reputation for being at the forefront of efforts to reduce the environmental impact of healthcare service delivery, from being one of the first trusts to install efficient on-site combined heat and power energy centres at the turn of the century, to being the first trust in Europe to implement reusable sharps boxes 15 years ago.

Our award-winning sustainability team, with our Sustainable Healthcare in Newcastle (Shine) brand, is helping to embed sustainability across our services and empower staff to make sustainable choices for the benefit of our patients and wider population. And we have made huge progress already including:

  • We produce a good deal of our electricity on site and any we buy comes from 100% renewable sources.
    We have been zero waste to landfill since 2011.
  • We recycle over 40% of our non-clinical waste.We’re investing in fully electric buses for staff, patients & visitors and have electric fleet for estates and catering services.
  • We have removed single use plastics, such as cutlery and plates, from Trust restaurants and cafes providing compostable alternatives.
  • We include sustainability specification and evaluation criteria in all procurement contracts.
  • We have an ever-expanding staff network of over 300 Green Champions.
  • We are ranked number one for sustainability reporting in the NHS.

Some of our teams have also taken a prominentapproach to reducing the impact of the healthcare we provide. The renal team have been working for several years to minimise the environmental impact of dialysis – a process which uses huge amounts of energy and waste products. In anaesthetics, Dr Cathy Lawson was appointed as the UK’s first environmentally sustainable anaesthesia fellow, and is working to implement changes to clinical practice that, if replicated across the sector, could reduce the carbon footprint of health and social care by 2% (approximately half a million tonnes of CO2e a year)

There are also brilliant examples of work that all of our Green Champions are undertaking every day, and this is an area where all of us have a part to play. From cycling into work, or taking advantage of our discounted public transport passes, to using reusable cups and segregating our waste correctly everyone can contribute. This month, our #FlourishAtNewcastleHospitals programme is providing a trust wide focus on sustainability and our work to help meet the climate emergency. We’re outlining what we are doing and how staff can help in each of our eight focus areas: energy; waste; water; buildings & land; journeys; purchasing; care and people.

A poster of what makes up sustainability.

The climate crisis is the biggest threat to health this century. Scientists say we only have the next decade to avoid climate breakdown and protect the health of our children and those yet to be born. Our profession requires us to ‘first do no harm’; this gives us a moral obligation to reduce the harmful effects of carbon emissions and pollution from out activities. To quote Greta Thunberg: “…it is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision. It will take courage. It will take fierce determination to act now, to lay foundations when we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking.”

Here in Newcastle we’ve taken up this challenge and would encourage others in health and social care to follow.