The Planetary Emergency: What is it and how to take action

Are you a healthcare professional concerned about the planetary health emergency? Do you want to find out what you can do to take climate action? Read on to learn about the planetary emergency, why health professionals should get involved, and how you can take action.

What is the Planetary Emergency?

Over the last couple of years the work of Greta Thunberg and many other concerned individuals and organisations have highlighted that, despite the rhetoric and multiple international climate summits, since 1980 global emissions have doubled. We have removed about half the wild birds, mammals, fish, invertebrates and insects on our planet.  

We, at the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, fully support the calls for for change and declarations of climate emergency. We support moving the net zero target for emissions to 2030.

The Climate Science

Over the last one hundred years our consumption of our planet’s resources has grown exponentially and the rate at which we are impacting our natural environment continues to accelerate. In the last 40 years we have emitted dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and removed about half of the wild birds, mammals, fish, invertebrates and insects from our planet.

If we reduce emissions and prevent a rise in temperatures beyond 1.5°C it is predicted that the climate will stabilise. Beyond this it is likely that we will move through a number of tipping points and enter a period of warming that will lead to complete breakdown of the climate as we know it.

We are not on target to keep below 1.5°C

For the last 1.2million years our planet has moved through predictable interglacial cycles lasting about 100,000 years. These occurred due to subtle changes in the earth’s axis of rotation and orbit around the sun. The rise in CO² levels caused by fossil fuel combustion has broken this cycle, taking us into uncharted territory.  Since the industrial revolution, we have burnt approximately 100,000,000,000 tonnes of crude oil. This has resulted in carbon dioxide levels rising from 270ppm to 400ppm causing average global temperatures to rise by 1°C. This may not sound a lot but, putting it in context, if we have a 1°C rise in our body temperature we would have a fever of 38°C and feel very unwell. This rate of change in global temperatures is un-precedented and has already had significant impacts. As an example, we have seen at least 50% of the world coral reefs experience bleaching episodes since 1976. This is already impacting human health as 1.2 billion people rely on these reefs for their main source of protein.

Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health

On our current trajectory, the World Bank predicts that by 2030 climate change will reverse recent public health gains putting 100 million people back into poverty and causing at least an additional 250,000 deaths annually.  The illustration below shows the ways in which climate change impacts human health.

We can see that climate change biodiversity loss and pollution are not just inconvenient. They are the biggest public health threats humankind has ever faced.

Healthcare systems themselves contribute to climate change, undermining their efforts to improve and maintain the health of the populations they serve. The NHS UK is the largest employer in Europe with some 1.7 million employees. It has a significant environmental footprint in terms of resource use, pollution and carbon footprint and accounts for around 4% of UK emissions. It is however, the first first national health service to make a net zero commitment and has recognized the urgency of including climate change as a priority to secure both a healthy recovery from the current pandemic and a healthy and safe future. 

Are we in a global planetary climate emergency?

The science tells us this truly is a climate and global health emergency and the health implications of this are clear. As Healthcare Professionals we should not stand on the sidelines. We have a duty of care to our patients and communities and have a responsibility to act.

Planetary emergency plan for health professionals

Healthcare professionals are widely respected in our society. There is a huge amount to do and we are all needed. There are many important ways to make a difference.

Take climate action in your workplace:

Engage in sustainable healthcare training courses

To support your efforts and provide a framework to create change, the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare offers a range of courses on sustainability, health and healthcare. Our virtual workshops are a great place to meet other healthcare professionals passionate about making healthcare sustainable. We recommend starting with Introduction to Sustainable Healthcare and then continuing further with our more specialised courses:

Support change within your hospital or workplace

  • Identify the sustainability lead and see what you can do to support the sustainability agenda.
  • Give a teaching session on the climate crisis, health and sustainable healthcare at a meeting.
  • Find out if your hospital trust has a Green Plan. If not, Greener NHS has a guidance on how to produce one.

Connect with others taking climate action

It is important to develop contacts with like-minded individuals to support you and to share ideas with. 

  • The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare hosts and supports networks to enable communities of like-minded people to collaborate on sustainability in their clinical specialty or area of interest.
  • Become active on social media; follow CSH and our partner organisations on Twitter 
  • Consider supporting the calls for declarations of climate emergency

Your voice counts

By adding your voice to the growing number of healthcare professionals you are contributing to delivering a sustainable way of life for our children and communities, now and in the future.

Tips for talking to people:

  • Knowledge alone does not change behaviour
  • If you have outlined the climate crisis, move quickly into discussions about taking action.  This is because it is important to avoid despair. If people think there is no hope they will not take the action which is so vitally needed.
  • Tell your story on what led you to get involved with taking climate action and don’t be afraid to use a bit of humour both to disarm and engage.
  • Encourage people that it doesn't matter if you don't know all the facts - we know more than enough to take action
  • Emphasise that the actions which improve the environment also improve human health

How the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare is supporting healthcare professionals to take action

Since 2008 the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare has been exploring methodologies and metrics that can help to transform models of care.  We work with key partners to engage healthcare professionals, patients and the wider community in understanding the connections between health and environment, and to reduce healthcare’s resource footprint.

We have developed key principles of sustainable healthcare and toolkits for embedding sustainability in quality improvement that you can use. 

Our Green Ward Competition and Sustainable Specialties Programme are designed to mainstream sustainability in the daily practice of healthcare professionals and integrate sustainability into the planning of health services and systems.

Our specialist expertise in carbon modelling of sustainable healthcare allows us to demonstrate the impact of our interventions. We support this action by our work in medical education; integrating sustainability into curricula, and running courses in sustainable healthcare.

Our green space projects, especially our NHS Forest, assist organisations to improve their natural environment and reconnect their staff, patients and the wider community with their local green space to benefit their health. Trees absorb carbon, improve air quality and provide vital shade. Planting more trees in urban areas will be vital to help capture carbon and to make our towns and cities healthier places to live. For the last decade we’ve been planting trees on NHS land, for the benefit of patients, staff and communities. Help us plant more!

Planetary Emergency Partnership

We recognise the importance of taking a cross-organisational approach in tackling these huge environmental issues and have built strong links with our colleagues at the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, Medact, the BMA Fair Medical Trade group, Healthcare Without Harm, Greener NHS and Health Declares Climate and Ecological Emergency. Learn more about the organisations working specifically at the interface of health and sustainability, here.


The Lancet 2018 Report on the connections between health and climate change is summarised in this short video: