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Press release: Royal College of Physicians calls for government to prioritise a transition from fossil fuels as it launches sustainability and climate change campaign

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) is urging the government to prioritise a just transition from fossil fuels, with support for people to reduce energy use, as it launches a new campaign highlighting climate change as the biggest long-term risk to human health.

Launching at its Medicine 2023 annual conference today, the RCP’s campaign includes calls on the government to redirect all fossil fuel investments and subsidies towards renewable energy sources and technologies, provide a robust and credible Net Zero Strategy to meet its legal net zero commitments, build on its presidency of COP26 to drive ambitious international action and go further in its efforts to reverse environmental decline.

In a new report, RCP view on healthcare sustainability and climate change, the organisation also wants the government to provide everyone with access to a green space within 10 minutes of their home and to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to meet its own aim that half of all journeys in towns and cities should be walked or cycled by 2030.

The report also highlights that, while the threat to human health from climate change is clear, so too are the many benefits for health from many of the interventions. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will improve air quality, as will promoting active travel and providing more green spaces. Improving the number and quality of green spaces will benefit mental and physical health, with potentially large savings for the NHS. More generally, preventing avoidable ill health means patients enjoy more years in better health, reducing the need for costly interventions and in turn the emissions and waste they would generate.

Acting on climate change will also help to reduce health inequalities. People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend be more exposed to air pollution, living for example by busy roads or in poor housing. The RCP wants the government to fully implement recommendations from the Chief Medical Officer’s annual report on air pollution, taking robust action across different sectors to improve both outdoor and indoor air quality. Inaction on climate change will likely exacerbate health inequalities.

The RCP has adopted healthcare sustainability and climate change as one of its priorities and it will be a key strand of the RCP’s influencing activity for at least the next 4 years. The report focuses on the role that UK government and the NHS – including individual clinicians - can play in addressing climate change.

RCP president Dr Sarah Clarke says: “Climate change represents the most significant challenge facing society, not just in the UK but globally. Meeting this challenge will require us all, from individuals to organisations like the RCP, to make changes to how we live and behave but determined action, particularly by governments, industry and public services such as the NHS, can make a meaningful difference.

“The government has taken a number of important steps in recent years to tackle climate change but we want it to go even further. Reducing and ultimately eliminating our use of fossil fuels is a linchpin of this and must be a central priority in government policy making, underpinned by the necessary investment.”

The NHS has taken a significant step by setting itself the aim of becoming the world’s first net zero national health service. The RCP wants to see the NHS constitution updated to include the net zero targets and to make it clear that this is a key responsibility of all staff; the link between climate change mitigation and improved health outcomes recognised and leveraged in national, regional and local health inequalities work; and initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of healthcare delivery within the NHS appropriately funded.

Several case studies in the report demonstrate that everyone in the NHS can contribute to making the NHS more sustainable.

Says Dr Clarke: “Finding new ways of working that enable healthcare to be delivered more sustainably can make an important and tangible difference to our efforts to tackle climate change. At the RCP we have long been committed to minimising the environmental impact of our work and want to use our voice to drive action to tackle climate change, protect and improve health.”