If health care were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses on the planet, and responsible for 4,4% of global net emissions1.
The health care sector, therefore, must act responsibly and sustainably while providing health care. Africa is amongst the least resilient regions of the world when it comes to adapting to the impact of climate change. Health professionals will have to respond to disasters and changing disease patterns related to the environmental crisis. They must prepare future health professionals to practice health care without causing harm and to advocate for planetary health.
In today’s consumption driven societies, large amounts of paper waste, food waste, e-waste, plastics and excessive packaging are causing socio-economic and environmentally adverse impacts. Excessive waste and limited landfill is a particularly urgent problem at Stellenbosch University (SU). A 2017 study on waste management at higher education institutions2 showed that all types of educational institutions, particularly universities, will come to play an important leadership role in the environmental protection movement.
New look for Green Committee
SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), which is situated at the Tygerberg campus in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, appointed a “green committee” more than ten years ago. The committee’s primary objective was to monitor and implement sustainability initiatives in lecture theatres, clinical and office environments, as well as residential spaces with the view to getting staff and students at the FMHS to start living more sustainably.
In 2019, the Green Committee was officially renamed the Dean’s Advisory Committee on Environmental Sustainability (DACES), with a clear mandate to ensure environmental sustainability, as well as promote personal wellbeing and environmentally sustainable personal behaviour.
Chairperson of the DACES, Prof Bob Mash, explains that the committee, that consists of representatives from the FMHS’s student cohort, academic departments, administrative divisions, information technology and facilities management, is reinvigorated in its intention to drive sustainability initiatives at the Tygerberg campus. “With well over 4 000 staff and students working and/or studying here at any one time, it made sense that we start implementing our initiatives with strong strategic intent.”
In 2019, the FMHS launched its new Faculty Charter, which further commits staff and students to protecting the sustainability of natural environments and to implement strategies that will minimise further degradation. The DACES has thus far succeeded in incorporating environmental stewardship as a graduate attribute in the new curriculum for the training of doctors.
The FMHS is a member of the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals network (GGHH), which means the Faculty also commits itself to sustainable practices in the areas of leadership, energy, waste, water, food, buildings, travel, chemicals, biodiversity and procurement. Toward the end of 2019, the DACES had finalised its strategic terms of reference and put in place very specific goals – all of which are aligned with the SU’s 2019 to 2024 environmental plan. Some specific goals include:
DACES also intends contributing to student food security by expanding and maintaining a sustainable food garden by 2021. The vegetable garden, which is run by the Faculty’s Vegetable Garden Club, offers FMHS students some “green” time in the sun and therapy in the form of gardening. It was established in 2018 in an effort to introduce more green spaces at the Tygerberg campus, and has since become a space many students use to cope with stress and strengthen relationships.
Says Mash: “Very strong links exist between health and the environment and this committee is working toward making a demonstrable difference right here on this campus.”
He explains that current and future health care professionals can and do have a very important role to play in addressing the climate crisis. “Climate change, a loss of biodiversity and eco-systems all contribute to an environmental crisis, which can and very often does have a detrimental impact on the health of people. Health care providers need to speak up about the environmental crises facing the populations we serve.
“We do not have much time to transform our relationship with the planet and change our patterns of consumption, but health care professionals can help by leading.”
1. Karliner, J., Slotterback, S., Boyd, R., Ashby, B. and Steel, K. “Health care’s climate footprint: how the health sector contributes to the global climate crisis and opportunities for action. Health Care Without Harm”, 2019. Available from https://noharm-global.org/sites/default/files/documents-files/5961/HealthCaresClimateFootprint_ 090619.pdf2. Ebrahimi, K. and North, L. (2017). “Effective strategies for enhancing waste management at university campuses”, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol 18 No 7, pp 1123-1141