Media release: Doctors alarmed, but not surprised, at data estimating the significant carbon footprint of our health care system

Climate change is predicted to be one of the greatest health threats of the 21st century and it is urgent for Australia to reduce its green house emissions, which remain unacceptably high.

Yet the health sector contributes to the problem with research published today, in the Lancet Planetary Health, revealing that Australia’s health care system is contributing to over 7% of Australia’s total carbon footprint, i.e. similar to the carbon of everything that 7% of the Australian population does (food, shopping, all forms of travel, all electricity and gas, etc.)

“Every sector of the economy must be analysed to see how we can do better and the healthcare system needs to be part of the solution and not a large contributor to the problem,” states Dr Forbes McGain, co-author and Doctors for the Environment Australia spokesperson.

The study was an economic input output life cycle assessment of the carbon footprint of Australian Healthcare lead by researchers at the University of Sydney and the first of its kind examining Australia’s health care environmental impact. Similar studies have predicted England’s National Health Service to contribute approximately 4% of England’s total carbon footprint and the United State’s health service 10%.

Of the 7% of CO2 emissions from Australia’s health care, hospitals are responsible for 44%, pharmaceuticals for 19%, capital expenditure 8%, community and public health 6% and general practice 4%.

Changes to reduce Australian healthcare’s carbon footprint involve striving for a better health system for all Australian’s that is more sustainable – financially, environmentally and socially. Examples include:

  1. Anaesthetic gases
    All anaesthetic gases have high global warming potentials, hundreds to thousands of times that of CO2 itself, with the gases desflurane and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) being particularly problematic. It is possible to use general anaesthetic alternatives to desflurane and nitrous oxide without impacting in any way upon patient care and some anaesthetists indeed do not use these agents. Hospitals can considerably reduce desflurane and nitrous oxide use whilst saving money ($30,000 p.a.) as has been done at Western Health, Melbourne, Australia.

  2. Hospital engineers and waste managers given targets to achieve energy efficiency and CO2 emission reductions. Hospital engineers and waste managers are vital in achieving energy and waste efficiency gains. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning are generally left running eternally rather than when patients are present in the operating theatres. Improvements to building management systems are vital. Large energy (and financial- $15,000 p.a.) savings are possible as evidenced by work at Western Health with hospital steam sterilisers used more efficiently.

  3. Renewable energy supplies for hospitals will be integral to the move towards a low carbon healthcare system and economy more broadly. There are now short payback times for solar photovoltaics as electricity prices are rising even for hospitals. As an example, Western Health’s Sunshine Hospital in the western suburbs of Melbourne has recently installed 315 kW of solar panels.

Dr McGain highlights that “Whilst some health organisations are independently working towards addressing their environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions, there is unfortunately little to no national or state leadership to assist”.

Dr McGain continues “If Australian and State Governments are serious about preventing the significant health, economic and environmental impacts of climate change then they need to ensure measures are taken within the health care sector to facilitate this, and to also prioritise preventative and primary healthcare to reduce hospital admissions.”

The federal government ultimately supplies most of the funding to states and so has the ability to encourage, or if necessary, demand action in all (public) hospitals as well as strengthening of preventative and primary healthcare. Money saved could go back into the health service.

Dr Forbes McGain, anaesthetist and intensive care physician, Western Health - 0400 224 318

DEA’s Climate Change and Health in Australia Fact Sheet

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