Year of Climate Change and Health: The Unstoppable Momentum of Clean Energy

(Smøla Wind Farm. Foto: Bjørn Luell)

The last few years have been an exciting time for clean energy around the world. Countries have made major progress on renewable energy goals and we’ve watched solar and wind prices drop in certain areas to near grid-competitive. Costa Rica already met 99% renewable energy in 2015, Germany is able to get to 78% of its capacity on certain days from renewables, and Sweden will be fossil-fuel free country with 100% renewable energy by 2040.

And what about the United States? The Department of Energy released a report in February 2017 that the solar workforce grew by 25% and wind employment grew by 32%. Despite this encouraging momentum, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that our country is still only at 10% renewable energy capacity. For a country that often prides itself on being the best, we’re losing the clean energy race.

This is not good news for our health. Intellectually, it makes sense that energy choices have an impact on our health such as increased asthma attacks, other respiratory issues, and cardiac events. The World Health Organization estimates as many as 7 million people will die prematurely every year because of air pollution.

That’s why we do what we do. Health Care Without Harm is working to transform health care worldwide so that it reduces its environmental footprint, becomes a community anchor for sustainability and a leader in the global movement for environmental health and justice. We’re often asked — why health care? Given the 24/7 nature of a hospital’s operations, it’s no surprise that health care is the second most energy intensive sector in the U.S. and responsible for 8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

So, what does this look like for hospitals in your neighborhood? Here are a few examples from our membership network, Practice Greenhealth:

  • Kaiser Permanente has publicly pledged to become carbon net positive by 2025, and its significant increase in renewable power purchasing is already helping its California facilities to receive nearly half of their electricity from renewable sources.
  • Gundersen Health System in Wisconsin has been producing more energy than it uses since October 2014, and has invested in landfill biogas development and a community wind farm.
  • In addition to transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, health care can co-invest in community energy projects to support community-level resilience. Two large health systems in Ohio — Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals — are co-investing in solar and energy efficiency strategies through the Evergreen Cooperatives.

Ohio is a particular interesting place to look a bit closer, given its heavy reliance on coal (still nearly 60% of the grid is coal powered), the importance of the state in presidential elections, and the representation of a mixed demographic of urban and rural. And sure, I am a bit biased as an Ohio native and current resident in its capital city of Columbus. But no one is more pleasantly surprised than me about our governor’s reaction to the continued battle over our state energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards. When the Republican-controlled state legislature passed yet another bill to kill these important standards, John Kasich vetoed it.

This is happening across the nation — state mandates are being challenged, critical federal agency budgets are being cut, misinformation regarding the scientific facts of climate change are being spread. So how do I know that the unstoppable momentum of clean energy is upon us?

Because of health care organizations like Kaiser, Gundersen, Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. Because of common-sense leaders like John Kasich. Because of the incredibly intelligent, capable people I have the honor of working with at Health Care Without Harm.

If you work for a health system or are a health professional looking to get involved with the clean energy movement and beyond, join us and learn more at

works with the Health Care Without Harm Climate Program. Health Care Without Harm seeks to transform the health sector worldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it becomes ecologically sustainable and a leading advocate for environmental health and justice.