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Why nurses must lead the way in fight against climate change

COP26 UN Climate Change Conference takes place from October 31 to November 12

They have been on the front line fighting one of the deadliest pandemics of all time, but nurses are now being called on to tackle perhaps an even greater threat.

Researchers have identified nurses as the key to the global health care sector’s push to become carbon neutral in less than 30 years.

Dr Aletha Ward, a lecturer in nursing and public health researcher at the University of Southern Queensland, is leading a research study on the role of the industry in reducing carbon emissions.

Health care is responsible for 4.4 per cent of global emissions making it one of the biggest contributors to climate change through the procurement of goods and services, energy use, waste and transport.

If the sector was a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter on the planet.

In Australia, health care generates almost a tenth of the nation’s overall carbon emissions.

The scale of the problem has reached unprecedented levels caused by the enormous increase of single-use plastic items used to fight COVID-19, such as masks, gloves, personal protective equipment (PPE), syringes and syringe caps.

“Waste reduction is more important now than ever as we have never had such high clinical waste that we are producing now, because of the pandemic,” said Dr Ward, a registered nurse of almost 20 years.

“The paradox is that while the health care sector is one of the biggest culprits of carbon emissions, it is responsible for looking after those most at risk of developing health problems due to climate change, such as heat stroke and respiratory illness.”

Dr Ward said their study – a systematic review that analysed existing evidence from around the world – found that nurses must lead the way in the sector’s sustainability drive.

“Nursing is the largest health care profession, making up about 60 per cent of the health care workforce worldwide, and is often at the forefront of patient care,” Dr Ward said.

“As trusted health care professionals, it is essential nurses use their skills, knowledge and advocacy to reduce emissions and lead by example, in both their professional and personal lives.”

Dr Ward and her fellow investigators pulled together their findings from a large number of research papers, case studies, position statements and reports from the past seven years.

The key findings include:
• A need for increased education on climate change and emissions reduction within the nursing workforce and the undergraduate curriculum;
• Most health care-related environmental hazards begin at the bedside;
• Nurses need to be involved in adapting hospital policy to support recycling, energy and waste reduction; and
• Nurses need to advocate for federal and state government policies, as well as investment in infrastructure and initiatives that aim to reduce emissions from the healthcare sector.

About 30,000 delegates and world leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have been in Scotland this week for the COP26 United Nations’ Climate Change Conference to negotiate emissions reduction measures to hit net zero emissions by 2050.

Dr Ward said strong nursing leadership was vital, but stressed every nurse needs to play a part.

“From strategies to reduce waste and recycle at the bedside, to influencing federal and state policy agenda, we must be prepared as a profession to address the health consequences of climate change and take responsibility to reduce emissions within the healthcare sector,” she said.

“Some hospitals are now recycling medical supplies, items and packages so they don’t go to landfill, while others have turned to renewable energy options like solar panels.

“Nurses can also make an important contribution by taking simple, positive steps to reducing their carbon footprint every day at work and in their homes.

“For example, making sure unused medical items don’t go to landfill, only opening necessary single use equipment, limiting unnecessary travel to conferences or meetings if they can be done online, and advocating for plant-based nutrition for patients.”

women in hospital room
Dr Aletha Ward, a lecturer in nursing and public health researcher at the University of Southern Queensland, is leading a research study on the role of the industry in reducing carbon emissions.