The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that unless there are immediate, large-scale and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, humankind will have missed the opportunity to limit the global temperature increase to less than 1.5°C. Yet we are already seeing the weather changes and impacts at an increase of 1.1°C.
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that climate change is expected to cause the death of 5 million people between 2030 and 2050 as a result of conditions such as malnutrition, diarrhoea and heat stress caused by exposure to thermal extremes and weather disasters. To put this figure in context, the BBC estimates that COVID-19 has claimed 4.4 million lives so far. However, “the pandemic will eventually pass, as all previous pandemics have,” said Richard Smith, chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, at BEVA Congress, “but climate change is for all our lifetimes and way, way beyond that.”
So, what can the veterinary profession do to become more sustainable while continuing to provide quality healthcare to our patients?
During BEVA Congress on 4 September 2021, there was a session entitled “Sustainability in equine practice” with a panel of specialist speakers including Ellie West, clinical anaesthetist and sustainability lead at Davies Veterinary Specialists; Anne Woolridge, ISSL chief operating officer and recognised international waste manager; April Sotomayor, sustainability consultant at PECT; and Richard Smith. Their talks contributed to a discussion of sustainability in equine practice, giving advice on what individual practitioners, practices and the profession as a whole can do to contribute towards increased sustainability.
In fact, Ellie stated that veterinary practitioners are in a unique position to contribute to sustainability and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. “The large footprint given by BEVA for an equine vet [524 tonnes of CO2e/vet] (BEVA, 2021) reflects the animals under your care [as well as] your extended influence, and this represents a massive opportunity to induce changes as one of the most trusted professions in the country,” says Ellie.
Climate, resources and biodiversity are three major factors the speakers considered as apt for change in equine practice. Ellie also described biodiversity and climate change as the “lynchpins” for influencing the other boundaries for sustainability deemed safe to operate within (Steffen et al., 2015).
Richard Smith suggests that one of the first steps veterinary practice can make towards lowering their greenhouse gas emissions is to calculate the overall carbon footprint of the industry. Doing so for your own practice should be easy as the information is readily available via bills, etc, says April Sotomayor. This calculation can also help you discover where your practice is most inefficient.
Unlike small animal practice whose biggest contributors to the footprint are anaesthetic gases and building infrastructure such as gas and electricity, the more ambulatory work of equine practice means that, according to Ellie, the major contributor shifts to fleet and fuel consumption. So it is obvious what practices can begin doing to reduce operations CO2 emissions. It is worth looking into how electric cars can fit into your practice; looking to see if there are charging points nearby or having a reserve car for on-call shifts or long journeys if you cannot convert the entire fleet are examples for your consideration, says Ellie.
Using what we have efficiently, considering the reuse of waste or “waste-to-resource” and a move from reactive to preventative healthcare models and systems were frequent suggestions for smaller, ad hoc considerations to large-scale, management and profession-wide changes in veterinary practice. “We really should be preventing waste being generated in the first place [and] … whatever you buy will come out as waste,” observes Anne Woolridge. The amount of pharmaceutical waste is “heinous”, she declares, as people buy what might be needed or futilely buy stock in bulk for economy of scale which inevitably produces waste, and thus wastes money, when the product remains unused.
Ellie also considers the safe disposal of waste and hazardous materials as a key aspect to preventing biodiversity loss. With ecosystems defined as the “bedrock of economy”, providing all we eat, use and need to provide quality care, biosphere integrity is essential in the drive towards sustainability. Large animal practitioners have a great potential for influence in regards to biodiversity, reports Ellie, as they can be involved in regenerative land management and habitat protection.
So, what can you do?
It is important to encourage what is already underway, says Richard. Commit to achieving net zero by an achievable date with a detailed plan prepared which includes interim targets.
April suggests that the use of environmental management systems (Table 1) is a brilliant way to transform smaller, discrete actions into a systematic approach to improve staff engagement and deliver the results intended in written policies. They move individuals away from a feeling of uncertainty and unease about the climate crisis, pollution and waste, and towards the sense of being enabled and engaged, “like they have a pathway to take” in order to see improvement, observed April.
|Appoint “Green Champions”||Appoint representatives from across all sites who will decide on and make commitments|
|Environmental policy||Develop a policy with high-level commitments such as annual audits or awareness training, and engage stakeholders and staff|
|Measure usage||To help understand your baseline, you can use bills, etc, to calculate your energy and fuel consumption|
|Set targets||Such as “go net zero by 2025”, then start by looking at annual targets|
|Create an action plan||Consider what can help you deliver on these targets – include simple tasks such as switch-off campaigns and training on fuel-reducing driving techniques|
|Recycling system||Consider your waste management system – what are you bringing in and what is leaving?|
|Travel plan||Make travel as efficient as possible – consider electric cars and posting medications and engage with suppliers|
|Eco projects||Consider what you are using in practice that can affect biodiversity such as anaesthetics and antibiotics. What can you do to change this?|
|Calculate CO2e||This can give you a basic understanding of your position and what can be worked on|
|Communicate and engage||Engage at all levels. Leadership engagement is crucial to unlocking resources and safety for staff who want to implement changes|
A big part of this system is engagement with staff and stakeholders, and both April and Ellie suggest that celebrating your successes is key to creating such engagement and dissolving the impression that becoming sustainable is a monumental task. “I think choosing something is the thing to do. Choose one thing to start with and really celebrate the fact that you have taken the first step,” says Ellie.
With the mental health crisis in the profession, it is important to consider that introducing these changes can be a form of escapism, continues Ellie. Contributing in a positive way and encouraging engagement can allow staff to bring their full selves to work and breaks down this barrier of unease, especially for those who feel that they cannot open up about these things in the workplace.
Try to reframe problems as opportunities and embed solutions into your existing structures as the first part of habit building is to start small and do so regularly. By making things desirable and part of a routine, people are more willing to take part and the task of becoming sustainable feels more achievable: think molehills not mountains.
The overall feeling of those assembled and a major take-away from this session seems to be that we must, as Ellie aptly summarised, “start somewhere with anything and do it now”.