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Royal College of Physicians and climate action

Climate change is the biggest global threat to health and the need to act has never been clearer. From respiratory diseases to access to clean water, global warming is negatively affecting the health of people around the world.  

In November 2021, Glasgow hosted the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) where UN leaders came together to ramp up commitments to achieving the aims of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

In the run up to the conference, the RCP worked with the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) to highlight the health impact of the climate crisis. ClinMed was one of over 200 health journals across the world to simultaneously publish an editorial in September last year calling for world leaders to take emergency action to limit climate change, restore biodiversity, and protect health.

The Healthy Climate Prescription, signed by the RCP as well as WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Geneva, was taken to Glasgow by bicycle supported by our own cycling RCP President. It was delivered to Gillian Keegan MP (the DHSC Minister for Care and Mental Health) at COP26.  

The RCP held a joint event with the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health at COP26 within the WHO Health Pavilion. The event focussed on the future of health if we do nothing and covered the impact of the climate emergency on physical health, mental health and child health. The RCP’s adviser on air pollution Professor Sir Stephen Holgate delivered a virtual talk.  

What is the RCP doing about climate change? 

Physicians have a crucial role to play in the sustainability agenda. The NHS is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. We strongly welcomed the NHS’ ambitious commitments in its Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ NHS report to reach net zero for emissions it directly controls by 2040, and for emissions it can influence by 2045. We hosted a webinar in March 2021, Clinicians for Climate Action, in partnership with UKHACC and the BMJ that considered how clinicians can individually and collectively take action on climate change.  

COVID-19 brought new sustainability challenges such as increased use of disposable PPE – but also new benefits, such as advances in technology for appointments which reduce the need to travel. The RCP set out its own recommendations for how to improve sustainability in the NHS in two reports, Breaking the fever: Sustainability and climate change in the NHS and Outpatients: the future – adding value through sustainability. Through these reports and other pieces of work we have made recommendations on how to change the way we deliver care to improved waste management, and these are still relevant. 

The RCP itself adopted a new climate change policy in January 2020, which seeks to encourage companies to align their businesses with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and immediately end investment in companies which aren’t taking such action. 

In 2021, as part of our campaigning work on air pollution, we worked closely with stakeholders to lobby for legally binding targets for PM2.5 in the Environment Act. Government did not accept this amendment into the final Act, but is currently consulting on PM2.5 targets. The RCP will submit a response. Research suggests that up to one-third of new asthma cases might be avoided as a result of efforts to cut emissions.  

We continue to urge government to be ambitious in its approach to carbon reduction. Council recently approved the creation of an advisory group on sustainability and climate change. It will develop a programme that will have an impact across all the work of the RCP.