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Caring for the environment

It’s estimated that the global health care sector’s environmental footprint is equivalent to 4.4 per cent of global net emissions or the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 514 coal-fired power plants.[1]

Put another way, if the global health care sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet.[2]

In Australia, the carbon footprint attributed to health care is 7 per cent of Australia's total.[3] That’s the equivalent of the carbon emissions of the entire population of South Australia.[4]

Hospitals are responsible for almost half (44 per cent) of these emissions.[5]

Since 2015-16, St Vincent’s Health Australia has been rolling out a National Energy Action Program (NEAP) across its 16 hospitals and 20 aged care facilities to slash its carbon emissions.

It’s been driven in this effort, not just because of health’s major role in creating greenhouse emissions and its obligation to act as a responsible steward of the environment, but also because of its origins.

As a purpose-driven organisation founded by the Sisters of Charity, St Vincent’s has a mission to serve the most vulnerable, and low income Australians will be the hardest hit by climate change.

It also makes financial sense. Electricity and gas prices have risen considerably in Australia over the past five years (eg: power prices have risen by 117 per cent since 2008). The more SVHA saves on its power and gas bills, the more we can put into our frontline services.

As a healthcare organisation we also remember that clinicians take an oath to ‘first, do no harm’. We believe that responsibility extends to our environmental impact as well.

Over the last three years, SVHA’s NEAP has:

  • Installed approximately 13,000 solar panels across 24 hospitals and aged care facilities. The clean energy produced by the solar panels across our facilities is enough to power 3000 houses for one year;
  • Replaced just over 33,000 incandescent and fluorescent lighting with LED alternatives; and
  • Introduced a ‘plug-smart’ system – across 50 of our buildings – to improve the energy efficiency of lighting and other electrical equipment.

We’ve now begun a project to reduce the energy needed to drive the refrigeration units behind our air conditioning.

Air-conditioning uses vast amounts of electricity and is responsible for significant amounts of carbon emissions. By controlling the flow of chilled water through our facilities we dramatically reduce both.

An initial test of this approach at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney has been so successful – delivering an overall reduction of 30% energy consumption and a utility cost reduction of $128,590 – that we plan to extend the initiative to other facilities.

Overall, our NEAP has delivered impressive results. We’ve seen our total energy use drop by 8 per cent and our greenhouse gas emissions slashed from 118,109 tonnes of CO2e in 2015-16 down to 108,638 in 2018-19.

That’s the equivalent of removing 4,242 cars driving from our roads for one year.

These reductions are all the more impressive knowing that SVHA added one private hospital and five aged care facilities during this time.

In terms of the financial impact of these changes, we’re achieving savings in the area of around $880,000 each year in solar technology alone, and will do so for another 25 years (the general lifespan of the solar panel technology).

In fact, our estimated total savings for making these changes (across solar, lighting, energy-saving devices, and air conditioning) is $34 million over the next 25 years.

[1] Health Care’s Climate Footprint – how the health sector contributes to the global climate crisis and opportunities for action, Sept 2019, Health Care Without Harm/ARUP

[2] ibid

[3] The carbon footprint of Australian health care, The Lancet, Jan 2018

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

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