Lauren Ng, Sustainability Communications and Outreach Coordinator at UCSF Office of Sustainability, January 2020
Carbon Neutrality: Why it Matters for Our Health, and How UCSF Plans to Achieve It
Source: UCSF Office of Sustainability stock
The climate is not just changing. It is in crisis, and so are we.
The climate crisis is a health care emergency. Simple and effective, this message has become the rallying cry of a rising movement of medical professionals and health care workers fighting the status quo of complacency, challenging our health institutions to act now and do more. Because we should, but more importantly, because we must.
Health care itself contributes significantly to climate change and its associated damages to our health. For instance, a study found that the U.S health care sector contributed to almost 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, emissions that contribute to air and water pollution, severe weather events, and extreme heat days. From the environmental cost of operating hospitals and vehicles, to the upstream production of drugs, medical devices, and electricity, health care activities generate external costs that are borne by the public in the form of respiratory illnesses, thermal stress, extreme weather events, malnutrition, and infectious disease. Another study estimated that these public health damages add up to about 405,000 disability-adjusted life-years annually. More than ever, health care bears a societal responsibility to address climate change.
What is our Carbon Neutrality Goal?
In November 2013, UC president Janet Napolitano announced the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, committing all UC schools to produce net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from Scope 1 and 2 sources by 2025. Scope 1 includes direct emissions from sources that UCSF owns or controls, such as on-site fossil fuel combustion from our Parnassus Central Utility Plant and the fuel used for the campus shuttle fleet. Scope 2 includes indirect emissions from buying electricity from PG&E. To reach carbon neutrality, we need a combination of reducing overall energy consumption, increasing efficiency, and purchasing more renewable energy. After taking all possible emissions reduction actions, we’ll need to purchase third-party certified carbon offsets to mitigate the remaining emissions.
UCSF Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions from 2010-2018.
Source: UCSF Office of Sustainability
Source: UCSF 2018 Climate Action Plan
What about indirect emissions generated from other activities, such as academic and business travel, employee commute, and investments? These indirect emissions are included in Scope 3. In September 2019, the University of California system announced divestment from fossil fuels, its $13.4 billion endowment now “fossil-free,” because hanging on to fossil fuel assets was a financial risk. UCSF’s goal is to achieve carbon neutrality from Scope 3 emissions by 2050. Looking ahead, UCSF is already researching ways to track and address these Scope 3 emissions. UCSF students under the Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI) program are currently working on projects such as researching carbon offsets for faculty travel. Other efforts to reduce Scope 3 emissions include promoting EV commute and charging, local housing, composting, and teleworking.
Advocacy and Education Efforts
“Health professional students are in a unique position to be part of these youth movements and connect them to medical knowledge and medical leaders who have a respected voice. Nurses and doctors are the most trusted professionals in the United States. We are uniquely positioned to explain the health impacts of climate change.” Sarah Schear, medical student
At UCSF, student leaders came together and created Human Health + Climate Change, an interdisciplinary student organization focused on creating awareness and enacting change at the intersection of climate change and health. Moreover, medical students continue to march and participate in climate strikes, handing out excuse notes to students missing class, speaking up about the health impacts of climate change, and demanding action from our public officials. According to Sarah Schear, a medical student at UCSF, “The youth have a clear vision for a just decarbonization process,” one that focuses on equity as we transition to societal and economic systems built upon renewables. Schear also added, “Health professional students are in a unique position to be part of these youth movements and connect them to medical knowledge and medical leaders who have a respected voice. Nurses and doctors are the most trusted professionals in the United States. We are uniquely positioned to explain the health impacts of climate change.”
Not only are students speaking up and taking action, but UCSF faculty are making it known that the climate crisis is a health crisis. UCSF’s Sheri Weiser, MD, MPH and Arianne Teheran, PhD, developed a climate-health curriculum applicable across all health sciences and trained faculty at other UC health campuses on how to integrate climate-health topics into their existing material. Katherine Gundling, MD, professor emeritus at UCSF, has mentored UCSF students passionate about human health and climate action. In addition to engaging leaders from the Institute for Global Health to collaborate in educational program development, Gundling has also accompanied students to Washington, DC to speak directly to legislators on climate and health.
Challenges to Reaching Carbon Neutrality
According to Gail Lee, Sustainability Director at UCSF, our greatest challenge lies in balancing significant campus growth with our carbon neutrality goals. Since 1990, UCSF has tripled its square footage to expand patient care services and groundbreaking health research. However, despite increasing its square footage, UCSF has managed to stay on-track. Lee highlighted that the construction of six new energy efficient designed buildings, of almost a million square feet, did not significantly affect UCSF’s trajectory towards meeting its carbon goals.
“Even though UCSF’s total square footage has increased, our energy use per square foot has been dropping nearly 3% each year. Three percent may not seem like a lot, but it is significant when you consider the large scale of UCSF and its operations. It is a sign that our energy efficiency projects are working. That, combined with our efforts to source cleaner electricity, is the reason why our overall carbon emissions are decreasing despite extensive growth.” Rowena Eng, Sustainability Coordinator at UCSF
Notably, UCSF completed five new solar installations in fiscal year 2018, which, when added to two existing systems, will produce at total of 2.6 million-kilowatt hours – about 3% of our annual electricity use. However, the challenge of natural gas remains. Eng added, “Our other greatest challenge is reducing our reliance on our natural gas-powered utility plant at Parnassus. That’s where the majority of our carbon emissions comes from. Not only do we have to reach net zero emissions by 2025, but as a public institution, we have to do so in a fiscally responsible way.”
UCSF’s most recent Climate Action Plan lists many strategic commitments to reach carbon neutrality. These include: increasing energy efficiency in existing buildings, installing more on-site renewable energy, procuring clean energy from the City of San Francisco, electrifying transit and heating/cooling systems, using 10% UCOP (University of California Office of the President) biogas, and building new and renovated high performance buildings.
Over the years, UCSF has steadily decreased its Scope 1 and 2 emissions through energy efficiency retrofits, behavior change campaigns, UC’s wholesale renewable power program, and cleaner purchased electricity. However, it takes collective commitment and action to achieve neutrality. “We cannot reach our carbon goals without support from the UCSF community,” Lee emphasized. Eng echoed these sentiments, stating that, “Ultimately, we still need individuals to do their part to conserve energy.” When asked how UCSF employees can do their part, Lee advised, “Buy Energy Star certified products.” These include lab equipment such as ultra-low temperature freezers and sterilizers, digital screens, and kitchen appliances such as freezers, refrigerators, microwaves, and hot/cold water dispensers. By simply purchasing energy efficient equipment, and replacing older, less efficient models, we can significantly lower our energy consumption.
“We cannot reach our carbon goals without support from the UCSF community.” Gail Lee, Sustainability Director at UCSF
Most of all, we cannot reach carbon neutrality without working together. One of our greatest achievements, according to Eng, has been the collaboration and partnerships between departments across UCSF. “An institution can’t successfully be sustainable until we have a culture that instills a green mindset at all levels of operations and decision making,” she emphasized. From individual actions, such as those encouraged by the Carbon Neutrality Campaign, to the collective decisions that lead to impactful policies such as the UC-wide Sustainable Practices policy and the UCSF Energy Conservation policy, our actions and choices do matter.
“An institution can’t successfully be sustainable until we have a culture that instills a green mindset at all levels of operations and decision making.” Rowena Eng
What you can do:
• Attend the upcoming workshop, “Climate Change & Health Advocacy Skill-Up for Health Professionals” on January 11th at UCSF Mission Hall.
• Understand how climate change affects health, and share this information with your colleagues, friends, and family.
• If you make purchasing decisions for your department, buy Energy Star and familiarize yourself with the UCSF Energy Conservation policy.
• Download and share the Carbon Neutrality campaign posters, and see which of these actions you take to help UCSF reach its goal.
California Climate Health Now
An organization of medical doctors and health care professionals committed to raising awareness about how climate change is a health-risk multiplier and to advocating for public health.