Climate change is a critical public health issue — one that hospitals need to do more to address. Every year, U.S. hospitals are emitting 8 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases, generating more than 5.9 million tons of waste annually, and spending more than $6.5 billion on energy costs. While many hospitals are beginning to adopt more climate-friendly policies, including changing supply chains to obtain greener products, increasing water conservation efforts, or reducing toxic and hazardous waste, we still must do more to reduce our collective environmental footprint.

If we commit to making the necessary changes, we will not only improve the overall health of our staff, patients, and communities — we can also save an estimated $15 billion over the next decade.

Overcoming Hurdles Must Start at the Top

Sustainability has many benefits. It contributes to a healthier environment, lowers operational costs, and frees up more resources for patient care.

Although progress has been slow, more and more hospitals are recognizing the importance of going green and hospitals are instituting sustainable practices. In fact, during the recent United Nations COP21 Conference on Climate Change in Paris, Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition that works to make the health care sector more ecologically sustainable, announced that 67 organizations, representing 8,200 hospitals and health centers from 16 countries, had pledged to reduce their carbon emissions by 2020.

I know firsthand how significant an undertaking these commitments can be, which is one reason why progress in adopting sustainable practices has been slow. As president and CEO of Dignity Health, one of the nation’s largest health systems, we have pledged to increase our use of renewable energy to 35 percent by 2020, and to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020. We are pleased to announce that we are ahead of our goal to meet these targets by 2020.

Although cost savings is an incentive, many hospitals cite funding as the biggest barrier to moving environmental projects forward. According to the 2015 Health Facilities Management (HFM) Sustainable Operations Survey, 61 percent named competing investments/spending priorities as the top challenge/barrier to realizing environmentally sustainable measures, followed by employee time limits (52 percent) and lack of adequate staff (50 percent).

Furthermore, the survey found a lack of management participating in hospitals’ sustainability initiatives. Nearly 60 percent of responses noted no C-suite representatives on sustainability teams, and only 29 percent had designated a sustainability manager to oversee their programs.

This is not acceptable.

As leaders in health care, we share a mission to protect our patients and help our communities live healthier lives. And increasingly, our patients are beginning to expect and demand that we make sustainability a priority. So as an industry, we have a moral responsibility to address climate change head-on.

We must lead by example, and advocate for the aggressive strategies we know will directly reduce the risk to our populations’ health. But to make this happen, hospital leaders must provide sufficient resources and empower their teams to make the necessary decisions.

Successful Approaches

There are a number of ways to pursue sustainability, and each organization must identify efforts that best align with their goals. These can include environmentally preferred purchasing, safer chemical use, green building and resiliency initiatives, a decrease in consumption of energy, water, and raw materials, recycling programs, a transition to renewable energy sources, and more.

I know that many of these options seem like expensive propositions, but the cost of these actions tends not be prohibitive. According to a study by The Commonwealth Fund, many green interventions do not involve any additional costs, and most savings were realized immediately. For example, Gundersen Health System in Wisconsin became the first health system in the nation to produce more energy than it needed. As a result, the system saved $2 million a year from improving overall energy efficiency by 40 percent.

Dignity Health has been an environmental sustainability leader for more than 20 years. As a result of our efforts, we curbed our carbon emissions by 20 percent in 2014, and reduced our energy use by even more. We are also proud to help pass SB 350, which is a bill that will help to double energy efficiencies by building and increasing by 50 percent renewable energy for California.

But we took our environmental stewardship one step further. We took a critical look at Dignity Health’s investment portfolio to ensure that we limit our relationships with the worst environmental offenders. During the historic United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, also known as the 21st Session of the Conference of Parties (COP21 conference), Dignity Health announced that we will now restrict our investments in thermal coal companies, and instead, ask our investment managers to incorporate sustainability into the analysis of companies within their portfolios.

Maintaining Momentum

For the health care industry, addressing climate change is a win-win proposition. We are not only in the world, but of the world. Successfully transforming health care requires our focused commitment and leadership to protect the planet.

Because of this belief, Dignity Health will continue to advocate for aggressive strategies that will directly reduce the risk to public health. We want to inspire other health care organizations to reevaluate their policies with an eye toward promoting sustainability.

While our individual efforts may yield varying outcomes, I believe that together, we can make a substantial difference to advance environmental health that will ultimately benefit our patients, our staff, and our communities.