What are the main strategies on sustainability in the NHS?

NHS England

Its vision is to deliver the world’s first net zero health service and respond to climate change, improving health now and for future generations.

A greener NHS

The NHS was founded to provide high-quality care for all, now, and for future generations. Understanding that climate change and human health are inextricably linked, in October 2020, it became the first in the world to commit to delivering a net zero national health system. This means improving healthcare while reducing harmful carbon emissions, and investing in efforts that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

With around 4% of the country’s carbon emissions, and over 7% of the economy, the NHS has an essential role to play in meeting the net zero targets set under the Climate Change Act (Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service).

Two clear and feasible targets are outlined in the Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service report:

  • The NHS Carbon Footprint: for the emissions we control directly, net zero by 2040
  • The NHS Carbon Footprint Plus: for the emissions we can influence, net zero by 2045.

Led by Dr Nick Watts, the NHS’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, the Greener NHS National Programme exists to drive this transformation while delivering against our broader environmental health priorities.

Laid out in the NHS Long Term Plan, these extended sustainability commitments range from reducing single-use plastics and water consumption, through to improving air quality.

Discover how the NHS is becoming greener

Thanks to its people, partners, and suppliers, the NHS is already building a greener NHS. One year on from setting out these targets, the NHS has reduced its emissions by the equivalent of powering 1.1 million homes annually. 

Stay up to date on how the NHS is becoming greener.

NHS organisations

Every NHS trust and Integrated Care System should have a Green Plan which sets out their aims, objectives, and delivery plans for carbon reduction. In each case, this should be signed off by the Trust Board, with a board-level ‘net zero lead’ responsible for overseeing its delivery.

Given the pivotal role that integrated care systems (ICSs) play, each system will also need to develop its own Green Plan, based on the strategies of its member organisations.

How to produce a Green Plan: A three-year strategy towards net zero (June 2021 update) explains how NHS organisations should construct their Green Plans, the areas and initiatives that the plans should cover, and signposts to supporting resources. Green Plans should cover the following areas:

  1. Estates and facilities
  2. Travel and transport
  3. Supply chain and procurement
  4. Medicines
  5. Workforce and system leadership
  6. Sustainable models of care
  7. Food and nutrition
  8. Digital transformation
  9. Adaptation

On 1 July 2022, the NHS became the first health system to embed net zero into legislation, through the Health and Care Act 2022. This places duties on NHS England, and all trusts, foundation trusts, and integrated care boards to contribute towards statutory emissions and environmental targets.

The Act requires commissioners and providers of NHS services specifically to address the net zero emissions targets. It also covers measures to adapt to any current or predicted impacts of climate change identified within the 2008 Climate Change Act.

Trusts and integrated care boards (ICBs) will meet this new duty through the delivery of their Green Plans, with every Trust and ICB in the country now having a board-level lead.

To support them, statutory guidance, including the Delivering a Net Zero National Health Service report and the Net Zero Supplier Roadmap is available to assist with the delivery of these duties.

NHS Digital

See their Sustainable Development Management Plan 2017-2022.

While their plan covers areas included in the Greener NHS Strategy, they also include digital sustainability.

This focuses on the 'use of digital technologies and tools to enable carbon savings across both NHS Digital’s own delivery and now to the wider health system.'  It includes:

Spread and adoption

Sustaining spread and adoption is about making sure innovations and changes stick in an organisation and are adopted by others.  It’s about ‘holding the gains’ and ‘evolving as required.’

See NHS England's spread and adoption guide and its 7 interconnected principles: complexity; leadership; the individua;l benefit; adopter focus; networks; learning.

See also the Care Quality Commission's Enabling innovation and adoption in health and social care.

Page last reviewed: 14 March 2023