Carbon emissions in Healthcare

Climate change has been described as the most significant global health threat of the 21st century.

With rising greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is occurring at a rate much faster than anticipated and the effects are clearly felt worldwide. In addition shifting weather patterns are amplifying the natural risks we’re already facing: floods, storms, heatwaves and drought – leading to more frequent and extreme loss events.

A warning statement

A study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production had found in 2015, the global pharma industry to be a major polluter, with a greenhouse gas emissions intensity approximately 55% greater than that of the automotive industry. Canada’s healthcare system is responsible for 48.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per million dollars, or 4.6% of the national total.

The pharma industry has received very little attention from the sustainability community in terms of its contribution to overall global carbon footprint. 

Much of the carbon footprint in healthcare is embedded carbon from the manufacturing of medicines and their delivery. About 80% of the pharmaceutical footprint is from the energy-intensive manufacturing process and the remainder from sourcing raw materials.

Additionally, the study determined that the overall sector would need to reduce emissions by 58.6% from 2015 levels by 2025, in order to comply with reduction targets in the Paris Agreement.

This alarming statement forces both organizations and professionals in the healthcare sector to review their sustainability initiatives with a bi-modal approach:

  • Reducing energy use
  • Reducing waste

Already, negative impacts on human health and wellbeing are being observed. These impacts present enormous challenges for the healthcare sector and the time has come for healthcare professionals to demonstrate leadership in addressing these challenges.

How pharmacies can play a vital role ?

The professional responsibilities of pharmacy are to protect against harm and to ensure medicines are used appropriately and effectively. There is an implicit moral obligation for organisations and the people who work in them to deliver healthcare more sustainably.

Pharmacies can and must take action in lowering carbon emissions to prevent harm to health from climate change.

Upstream the lifecycle: Reduce energy use

Medication distribution requires large amounts of energy used to transport and store medication properly. The most environmentally responsible distributors look at their entire processes; They rethink design and manufacturing processes and choose storage and transportation methods that are the cleanest possible. These products have been certified to environmental leadership standards and easy to recognize.

Pharmacies can have a real impact on the energy use within the industry by purchasing sustainable products from sustainable suppliers. This practise is called Sustainable Procurement. Choosing to work with a local supplier and supporting sustainable labels, are efficient sustainable procurement practices.

Moreover, purchasing ergonomically designed products allow for better efficiency and optimized workflows.


Downstream the lifecycle: Waste reduction

Pharmacies can help improve the sorting of waste streams to increase the amount of non-contaminated packaging waste that is recycled and reduce the amount of waste being incinerated or ending up in landfills.  An important method of waste management is the prevention of waste materials being created, also known as waste reduction.


Concrete actions to reduce waste in pharmacy exist and can be taken immediately:

  • Discouraging inappropriate use and overuse of prescription, non-prescription and alternative medications to decrease medication disposal.
  • Purchasing product lines with less packaging.
  • Promote environmentally friendly products for the dispensing of medicines.
  • Reduce the number of orders and potentially reduce the number of deliveries required through efficient inventory management practices.
  • Correctly sort recycling in the pharmacy and educate staff on recycling.
  • Encouraging targeted re-use practices for some specific packaging products.
  • Sending patient information leaflets through digital channels instead of hardcopy.

For pharmacies, "greening" the practice environment could translate into savings through dicreased energy use and reduced waste.  By undertaking substantial organizational changes and leading on the forefront of safe “decarbonisation” of medicines, pharmacists can truly reduce their carbon footprint and make a real impact on environment.

The goodwill that would result could bring customers to the store more frequently to purchase products they know are better for the environment, as well as to consult with knowledgeable pharmacy staff about issues that are important to them.



  • The effectiveness of Carbon Pricing: The Case of Alberta and British Columbia. Ali, Madiha. (2015). University of Calgary, Calgary, AB.
  • How pharmacists could save lives by cutting pharmaceutical carbon. Conall Watson. The Pharmaceutical Journal
  • Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players, Lotfi Belkhir, Ahmed Elmeligi, Journal of Cleaner Production, 20 March 2019
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