Aviation and Healthcare: Lessons in Unexpected Places

Aviation and Healthcare: Lessons in Unexpected Places


Feb 15, 2022

It is hard to overstate the significance of a proactive approach to the decarbonization of high emissions industries across the world. In the United States, the growing focus on the environmental footprint of the healthcare and pharmaceuticals industries led us to investigate how actors in other industries have dealt with the challenge of staying ahead of the environmental curve. And we continue to be surprised by the answers we find! Aviation is one such example, with caveats of course.

In 2018, when much of the world was still in a state of environmental inertia and buckling under the pressure of increasingly dire climate change predictions, the aviation industry – the quintessential antagonist – decided to take everyone unawares. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency, passed a resolution to limit the carbon dioxide emissions of international flights to 2020 levels between 2021-2035. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) was a key component of ensuring airlines stayed on course under the new plan.

Under CORSIA, all international airlines kicked off a process of monitoring compliance with the stipulated emissions reductions. They called for an intensification of efforts in 2021 by one of three mechanisms: reducing absolute emissions, making use of energy efficient fuels with a lower carbon footprint than conventional sources, or creating an investment portfolio with an underlying mandate to offset carbon emissions.

However, the ICAO took one important step which defined the relative effectiveness of this approach compared to similar efforts in other industries. It did not leave the definition of ‘recommended practices’ open to the interpretation of individual companies. Instead, it created what eventually resembled a guide to ensure the future verifiability of actions. Using this as the foundation for takeoff, the CORSIA marked the commencement of its first four-year voluntary phase in the year 2021.

We now know that the climate change debate has moved well past the fast-approaching deadline of 2035. The goalpost across industrial sectors has also been pushed twenty years further into the future. But the CORSIA remains significant for two reasons. First, the jury’s still out on the definition of CORSIA eligible fuels, which means there is time to ensure that stronger norms are instituted to prevent poor fuel substitutes from gaining legitimacy. And second, the ICAO has not finalized criteria for the admissibility of carbon offsets, which means the employment of questionable offsets, such as those under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), may not eventually pass.

But you’re probably wondering how any of this is relevant to healthcare. It’s quite simple really – aviation actions are not directly transferable to healthcare, but the approach is worth learning from. The aviation industry has garnered the historic reputation of being opaque in its operations and climate change commitments. It is among the largest global polluters with high levels of resistance to regulation. Additionally, it has been at the center of a slew of recent complaints regarding the incompatibility of a dual regulatory system consisting of the CORSIA and the older EU ETS. Interestingly, and despite these issues, the ICAO was able to design an approach that made an important attempt to find common ground and work across scale to find emissions commitments that reflected principles of equity and differentiated capabilities. These are areas that constitute essential learnings for the healthcare industry.

Healthcare organizations need to be proactive decision makers and innovators within the landscape of public health in the United States. Unlike the aviation industry, healthcare would undoubtedly find greater social approval and acceptance for any overarching plan to change the system. This is also a reminder that ESG metrics are not pursued and satisfied in a vacuum, but rather depend on a social and technological network that buoy small and large organizations alike.

Healthcare could benefit from the aviation industry’s ability to pre-empt potentially debilitating regulations by taking early steps to be better and walk the talk. The risk of delaying transformations is high since it would bring an increased level of scrutiny to organizational metrics of sustainability. And let’s face it, sustainability doesn’t manifest overnight. It requires commitment, hard work and all that good stuff. 

With the growing focus on the contributions of healthcare to the problem of climate change, now is an opportune moment to assume a new role and explore the potential for a nationwide system of compliance that espouses equity and carbon neutrality. In much the same way that airlines are being made to explore more efficient routes and schedules, there healthcare has a responsibility to investigate routine practices and implement revisions to help create a decarbonized health ecosystem.

A practical, carbon neutral approach is healthcare’s best bet, and if there’s anything the pandemic and climate change have taught us, it is that there are no substitutes for pre-emptive actions. So why wait?

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