Health care slips through the carbon emission conversation cracks

Health care slips through the carbon emission conversation cracks

For a sector accounting for nearly 10% of the country's carbon emissions, media attention is disproportionately low

From previous media analyses, we've concluded that media around the health care sector is quiet when it comes to sustainability, green initiatives, or toxics in medical products. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has certainly further distracted from that effort as the system was overwhelmed with patients in need.


This week we turned to a subject that has known media attention: carbon emissions. As the climate change crisis intensifies, attention to carbon output becomes all the more potent.

The health care sector undoubtedly faces challenges on this front: in the U.S., the health care system accounts for nearly 10% of national carbon emissions. We wanted to see if that same percentage was reflected in the news media: as the below graphic reveals, proportional attention is not the case.

News media landscape reflecting four major carbon outputters' percentage of news stories.

This graphic shows a representative sample of all of the news stories surrounding carbon emissions in the United States over the last three months. Each little dot represents a news story; the lines connecting them show interconnectivity between stories whether that be a location, person, specific subject, etc.

In this analysis we scanned for four major industries that emit high levels of carbon dioxide: agriculture, factory/industrial production, health care, and transportation. Stories about those sectors are colored in red, yellow, purple, and blue respectively; any other carbon-emission stories are shaded in the background.

Of the entire carbon emissions landscape, 17% of news attention went to transportation, and 10% to agriculture. These two industries also clearly have higher concentrations of stories in specific areas, while health care (3.2%) and factory production (2.9%) are scattered throughout the network, suggesting less of a targeted conversation around their carbon outputs and more of a random smattering of stories without connectivity.

Clearly, the amount of news coverage around health care carbon outputs vs. the actual measurement of health care carbon outputs is extremely disproportionate. The news favors automobile and farm animal carbon emissions over the health care sector, perhaps for a moral reason: no one wants to attack the industry responsible for healing those affected by air pollution and intensifying effects of climate change.

Yet, what we have here is a paradox: the very sector responsible for reacting to the effects of air pollution and climate change is a significant source of emissions contributing to those issues. There is a clear need, as issues such as wildfires, heat waves, and hurricanes continue to increase in magnitude in the coming years, for the health care sector to address its role in climate change. Proactiveness has the potential to prevent unnecessary illness and injury.

Many corporations within the sector have begun to take steps to address environmental sustainability, but the rest of the sector needs to follow suit. We intend in Code Green to highlight any of these initiatives to encourage communication and ingenuity across the sector.

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