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Kaiser Permanente becomes first carbon-neutral health system in the U.S.

Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest integrated, nonprofit health system, has become the first health care system in the United States to achieve carbon-neutral status.

With its longstanding commitment to improving conditions that lead to poor health, Kaiser Permanente has prioritized sustainability to contribute to and catalyze a green future free of the extreme climate conditions currently harming so many Americans.

This move to carbon neutrality eliminates the organization’s 800,000-ton annual carbon footprint, the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road. The U.S. health care industry overall is responsible for roughly 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“As wildfires rage across the Western U.S., we can all see that the health impacts of climate change are not abstract or far in the future — they are here today, and they disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among us,” said Greg A. Adams, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente. “We must recognize, for example, that the pollution that leads to respiratory illnesses and is linked to higher mortality rates from COVID-19, disproportionately impacts Black and low-income communities. In order to create a healthier, more sustainable path forward, we must address the inseparable issues of climate and human health as one.”

Climate change causes many conditions that drive poor health, including damaging extreme weather events such as wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts, increased rates of asthma and respiratory diseases, and the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and Zika virus.

“As physicians, climate change is absolutely in our lane — let’s educate ourselves, our patients, and our communities,” said Imelda Dacones, MD, president and CEO of Northwest Permanente Medical Group. “As a world, we will develop vaccines and effective medicines to treat the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate change, on the other hand, is a public health crisis where there will be no point of return if we don’t act today.”

Certified by the CarbonNeutral Protocol, the milestone comes as Kaiser Permanente has for decades embraced renewable energy and embedded sustainable practices throughout its business operations. The certification applies to its Scope 1 emissions (direct emissions from sources it owns or controls) and Scope 2 emissions (emissions attributable to the electricity it consumes), as well as select Scope 3 emissions (emissions from sources it does not directly own or control), including corporate travel.

In order to reach this milestone, Kaiser Permanente first improved energy efficiency in its buildings, installed on-site solar power, and made long-term purchases of new renewable energy generation.

Kaiser Permanente then invested in carbon offsets to counter the currently unavoidable emissions from the natural gas power that heats and cools its hospitals. The carbon offsets were chosen for their strong health benefits. One project funds clay pot water filters in Guatemala that avoid burning wood or gas to boil water, and also reduce fatal childhood waterborne diseases. Another project prevents Indonesian peatland from conversion into high-pollution palm oil production while funding a floating health clinic for riverside communities.

“We are proud of this accomplishment, but the urgency and scale of climate change require even greater and more widespread innovation,” said Ramé Hemstreet, vice president of operations for Kaiser Permanente’s National Facilities Services, and chief energy officer. “As we set our sights on new goals, we hope our example inspires others in our industry to do the same.”

Looking forward, Kaiser Permanente will expand its focus by reducing its Scope 3 footprint, including its supply chain. The organization will identify a Science-Based Target for additional emissions reductions in 2021.

“To have the necessary impact on the health of our climate and communities, we must continue to set and achieve bold, audacious environmental goals,” said Bechara Choucair, MD, senior vice president and chief health officer at Kaiser Permanente. “We must commit to doing the difficult work of decarbonizing our supply chain to greatly broaden our contribution to a carbon-free economy.”

Colorado College’s carbon neutrality is a first for the region

The leadership at Colorado College took a leap of faith to commit to a goal that took 11 years of hard work to accomplish.

In January, the private liberal arts college in Colorado Springs became the first higher education institution in the Rocky Mountain region to achieve carbon neutrality in its operations. The campus has reached zero net emissions in greenhouse gases in all operations for which they own or control, says Ian Johnson, Colorado College sustainability director.

“We went out on a limb and made an audacious stretch goal in 2009,” Johnson says. “It became part of our strategic plan and became a common understanding that we were all working for.”

Only nine North American colleges have reached carbon neutral status so far, according to Steve Muzzy, climate programs senior manager at Second Nature, a Boston-based nonprofit tracking those efforts. Larger Colorado institutions including University of Denver, Western Colorado University, Colorado State University and Colorado Mountain College are progressing toward carbon neutrality by 2050.

The carbon neutral pledge at the 100-acre Colorado College campus with an enrollment of 2,200 undergraduates required the work of students, faculty, staff and community partners. The college slashed overall on-campus emissions by 75% compared with the 2008 baseline, Johnson says. Efforts included energy efficiency retrofits in buildings, a 14-week campus behavioral change program and a large geothermal energy installation during a library renovation. Solar power installations play a large role with arrays on campus building rooftops, on the ground at a school facility near Crestone, and panels purchased in solar gardens through Colorado Springs Utilities.

The college purchased some verified carbon offsets for a methane capture project at a landfill in Colorado, yet Johnson says it is important for organizations to tackle the “hard work of reducing emissions as much as possible through conservation and efficiency first and to continue working to reduce those emissions even after looking to off-site investments.”

Johnson says energy efficiency improvements make good business sense: $1.5 million spent on campus sustainability projects during the past 10 years resulted in $6.6 million in avoided utility costs. The campus projects are scalable and replicable for other institutions to follow.

“We see that as part of our responsibility to be that model and educate others about this,” Johnson says. “The world in large part looks to higher ed institutions to provide answers to some of these tricky problems.”