Eight years after making its first pledge to reduce its carbon footprint, Kaiser Permanente has achieved the landmark of becoming the nation's first health system to become carbon neutral.
The health system on Monday announced it gained carbon-neutral status certification by the CarbonNeutral Protocol, an international recognition by global consulting firm Natural Capital Partners.
Ramé Hemstreet, chief energy officer and vice president of operations for Kaiser's National Facilities Services, estimated the move reduces the Oakland, Cali.-based system's annual carbon footprint by 800,000 tons, or the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road.
"We're hoping to inspire other health systems to set similarly ambitious goals," Hemstreet said.
Kaiser pledged in 2012 to reduce its carbon emissions 30% by 2020.
"Back then we thought that was a bold goal," Hemstreet said. "But we quickly achieved that milestone in 2016."
Over the past eight years, Kaiser has employed several initiatives to become more environmentally sustainable. It began by installing on-site solar power in its buildings and entering long-term power purchasing agreements for renewable energy sources. That improved the system's energy efficiency by 8% since 2012, Hemstreet said.
Kaiser also invested in a number of international projects that serve as "offsets" for the unavoidable greenhouse gases the system continues to emit through its natural gas-powered heating and cooling systems.
The certification recognizes Kaiser for reducing emissions from sources the health system directly owns or controls, as well as from the electricity it consumes. Hemstreet said Kaiser will purchase carbon offsets to compensate for corporate travel and will reduce the carbon emission output from its supply chain.
U.S. hospitals are among the world's biggest air polluters. A 2018 Commonwealth Fund study estimated the healthcare industry accounts for 10% of the country's carbon dioxide emissions. The amount of air pollutants produced by healthcare providers was associated with as many as 20,000 premature deaths a year, the study found.
"The connection between climate and health is so clear," said Dr. Bechara Choucair, senior vice president and chief health officer at Kaiser. "There's no doubt that to fulfill our commitment to improve the health and well-being of our communities, we have to be thinking about climate."
Kaiser is among a number of health systems that have in recent years become national leaders in calling on the healthcare sector to take a greater role in addressing climate change.
In 2016, Boston Medical Center entered into a purchasing agreement to construct a 650-acre solar installation in North Carolina in an effort to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020, and in 2017, Cleveland Clinic updated its energy sustainability plan to include the goal of becoming carbon neutral over the next 10 years.
Advocate Aurora Health in 2019 launched plans to power all of its facilities solely on renewable electricity sources by 2030, while biotechnology firm Biogen on Monday, announced it was investing $250 million over the next 20 years toward its Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives initiative to eliminate the use of fossil fuels across all its operations by 2040. The company reached carbon neutrality in 2014.
Such efforts have increased as climate change is increasingly identified as a social determinants of health, despite some denials of the science surrounding emissions' impact on air quality and health outcomes.
Proponents of sustainability efforts laud Kaiser and say the industry leader, with 39 hospitals and 12 million members across eight states and the District of Columbia, could make an impact.
"It's a really important accomplishment and one that's going to be pace-setting for the rest of the healthcare industry," said David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund.
Blumenthal acknowledged Kaiser's capitated payment structure gave it certain advantages over providers who depend on fee-for-service since they are incentivized to do more procedures and tests than is required, thereby increasing carbon emissions.
So far, providers have been designing greener buildings, using less energy and relying more on alternatives to fossil fuels. Experts say more collaborative work is needed.
One way could be how medical supplies are disposed of. They're made mostly of fossil fuels and produce more than 5 million tons of waste a year.
"Working on the supply chain is going to be very important and that will require a collaborative change in the collaborative purchasing practices of healthcare organizations," Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal suggested a need for healthcare providers to take a "Walmart- style approach" to purchasing wherein the industry leverages its buying power to source only from vendors that can meet its demand for low carbon footprint supplies.
He said providers needed to develop a strategy for how the industry collectively can efficiently reuse important therapeutic devices and equipment without jeopardizing patient safety.
Gary Cohen, president and co-founder for the advocacy organization Health Care Without Harm, said he expected more than a dozen other health systems and hospitals might achieve carbon neutral status by 2025.
But Cohen and Blumenthal agreed only so much can be accomplished if healthcare's move toward addressing climate change remains voluntary and the issue becomes increasingly politicized.
"Part of how we accelerate the rest of healthcare to move in this direction is to align incentives, and some of that will be on the policy level," Cohen said.