Please visit our Guidance for health systems: Setting a net-zero emission goal page for more information.
Why are we changing our goal from carbon neutrality to net zero?
Climate science shows us there is an urgent need to substantially reduce emissions in the near future and offsets are not sufficient to meet that goal. To limit warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F), organizations need to focus on decarbonization so we can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050. Carbon neutrality is defined by PAS 2060, the internationally recognized specification. PAS 2060 requires a time-bound carbon reduction plan but does not specify a level of ambition is prescribed. PAS 2060 does not set a limit on the amount of carbon offsets an entity can purchase to meet its carbon neutrality goal.
Global thinking has evolved concerning the broad use of carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality. There is real concern that the use of offsets to achieve neutrality does not send the right signal about the needed approach to decarbonization. Net zero requires organizations to set distinct targets for reducing their emissions in line with limiting warming to 1.5°C before considering the use of offsets. The World Resources Institute published Designing and communicating net-zero targets in July 2020 highlighting the need to separate carbon reduction trajectories from the management of residual emissions.
Health Care Without Harm published the Global Road Map for Health Care Decarbonization in April 2021. The report charts the course for zero emissions health care by 2050, providing trajectories for emissions reductions and exploring seven high-impact actions that are key to health care decarbonization. The report lays out the need for transformational innovation in health care delivery, operations, supply chain, and disease prevention that can also build resilience and health equity.
What are the parameters for setting a net-zero goal?
In September 2020, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) published Foundations for science-based net-zero target setting in the corporate sector. The paper includes a comprehensive set of recommendations that help to further clarify the approach to setting and implementing net-zero targets.
In response to the SBTi paper, The Carbon Trust published an article “Net-zero: an ambition in need of a definition” and shared a proposed definition and an additional set of recommendations. Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth took these recommendations into consideration when creating guidance for the health sector.
How should a facility or system set a baseline?
Baselines are required to understand the size of an organizational footprint and are used to set a target and track progress. The level of data availability will impact the choice of the baseline. It may be necessary over time to establish different baselines for different sets of data as new data becomes available or if the size of the organization varies substantially.
Why are offsets controversial?
The Clean Development Mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change offers the public and private sector in high-income nations the opportunity to purchase carbon credits from offset projects in low- or middle-income nations. Common types of offset projects include forestry and land use, renewable energy, energy efficiency, methane destruction, industrial gases, fuel switching, and clean cookstoves.
The use of traditional carbon offsets are considered controversial because they do not always lead to carbon reduction and may generate wider ecological or societal damage in their application. Carbon offset projects are most commonly purchased by entities from high-emitting countries and executed in low-emitting, low- or middle-income countries. Indigenous people and local communities are not always consulted and may not benefit from, and in some cases may be actively harmed, from offset projects.
This position paper by Friends of the Earth International makes a strong case against carbon offsets and markets. At the same time, there have been successful cap-and-trade models like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states of the United States.
Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth have developed a set of guiding principles for carbon offset purchases that include following the World Resources Institute principles to ensure offsets are real, permanent, additional, verifiable, and enforceable. In addition, health systems should strive for offsets that are transparent, have health co-benefits, promote justice and equity, and are ideally synchronous with emissions production.
One approach health systems can explore is to look for local offsets, investing in projects that improve the health and resilience of the disproportionately impacted communities they serve. This approach could include investing in local residential energy efficiency, renewable energy, or tree planting. Examples of these projects can be seen in the higher education sector in the U.S. through the Finger Lakes Fund and the Duke University Carbon Offset Initiative, and through local tree planting projects through organizations like Forterra.