Comment: Engineering’s role in delivering a Net Zero health service

Only by bringing together the engineering and healthcare communities can we realistically achieve the goals set out by the UK’s health services and create Net Zero healthcare for all, says Dr Helen Meese CEng MIMechE MIPEM MWES FRSA.


Despite the all-consuming mission of the global healthcare sector to ‘do no harm’ and protect society from illness, disease, and death, it is, according to NGO Health Care Without Harm, the fifth largest emitter of CO2 on the planet, contributing 4.4 per cent of global net emissions, with a climate footprint equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions produced by 514 coal-fired power plants.[i]

It seems ludicrous to think that the act of caring for those suffering from health conditions brought about by climate change is partially responsible for their condition in the first place. It is vital then, that the healthcare sector improves the sustainability of its practices and decarbonises in line with the Paris Climate Change Agreement and its Net Zero targets.

Engineering approaches are ubiquitous across healthcare, and engineers will and are playing a significant role in improving the quality and sustainability of care provision and in developing the technology that clinicians use. It is then engineers, working with healthcare experts, that will drive the development and adoption of sustainable and green technology alternatives for the healthcare sector going forward.

Many of the leading global healthcare companies and health service providers are already implementing sweeping changes to achieve Net Zero goals, and here in the UK the National Health Service (NHS) is leading the way. In 2020 the NHS became the first national health system in the world to commit to delivering a net zero service by 2040 through its ‘Greener NHS’ initiative.[ii] To achieve this, it will not only have to change the way it cares for patients across the hospital network; by opting to use more sustainable methods of treatment, but it will have to radically transform the way it selects and uses products and services, driving change across its entire supply chain network.  


Exciting innovations are just the start of what is required to achieve healthcare decarbonisation, and the engineers that develop these technologies need continued support. Funding from bodies such as SBRI Healthcare and the NIHR have provided start-ups and SMEs with the opportunities to develop ingenious solutions to some of healthcare’s greatest sustainability challenges. These include exploring the use of drones as a medical delivery method, the development of systems to capture and reuse environmentally harmful anaesthetic gases and using circular economy concepts to replace the use of single use medical plastics and clothing.

While the engineering community recognises the potentially significant impact it can have on global CO2 emissions, the responsibility to implement appropriate directives and standards relies on the forward thinking of international governments and so far, this has been noticeably lacking. Governments must increase funding for R&D into new innovations to lower barriers to markets, whilst maintaining patient safety standards which will provide effective, financial, as well as carbon savings for the healthcare sector.  

In addition, further collaboration between engineers, healthcare professionals, policy makers, and funders is essential to build an understanding of the specific and unique challenges presented in different healthcare environments and develop solutions to these. Where collaboration leads to success, knowledge sharing across hospitals, regions, and countries is vital to ensuring that best practice is adhered to internationally. The UK has an opportunity to lead in this field, and where success is present, it should be shared.

As well as supporting the engineers that are already developing sustainable solutions for healthcare, we must also consider the future. In a job market in which engineers are in incredibly high demand, it is our responsibility to highlight healthcare engineering as an inspiring, valuable, and ethically sound career for graduates.

It is these challenges, and a desire to overcome them, that has inspired the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to develop the upcoming report: ‘Transforming Healthcare: The role of engineering in delivering a Net Zero health service’. This report, being launched on 17th April 2024, acts as a call to arms for all engineers working across the healthcare sector. It explores and describes what engineers are already doing to facilitate healthcare’s Net Zero transition, and provides recommendations to policy makers, funders, industry, and academia to bring about the changes necessary to decarbonise healthcare.

I encourage you to read this report, share its messages, and attend the free launch event in London. Only by bringing together the engineering and healthcare communities and sharing the burden of this challenge can we realistically achieve the goals set out by the UK’s health services and create Net Zero healthcare for all.


[i] Health Care Without Harm. (2019). Health Care’s Climate Footprint: How the Global Health Sector Contributes to the Global Climate Crisis and Opportunities for Action.