Cutting down on the use of anesthetic gases that are used to keep the patients unconscious during surgery by 80 percent along with decarbonizing processes and buildings, investing in clean energy, telemedicine, and home healthcare are some of the major steps that can help Aga Khan University (AKU) to be the first institution of higher education in East Africa and Pakistan to become carbon neutral by 2030, officials said Saturday.
“Emissions from the healthcare systems account for 4.4% of the global net emissions; if health systems were a country, they would have a carbon footprint analogous to the fifth-largest emitter on the planet. At AKU, we are planning to achieve carbon neutrality in the next eight years by taking drastic measures, which include ending our dependence on anesthetic gases, which also contribute to anthropogenic climate change,” said AKU President Dr. Sulaiman Shahabuddin in an exclusive interview with The News.
Dr. Shahabuddin, who holds a Doctor of Health Administration degree from the Central Michigan University, USA, and also served as regional CEO of the Aga Khan Health Services in East Africa; believes that the first step to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to measure all emissions resulting from an organization’s activities.
Citing various studies published in the reputed scientific journals, the AKU president explained that during their use making patients unconscious for surgery, anesthetic gases are expelled into the atmosphere, where they contribute to anthropogenic climate change. According to a study published in The Lancet, the use of anesthetic gases like desflurane or sevoflurane from a modern anesthetic machine for an hour is the same as 230 or 30 miles traveled in a modern car, respectively.
Instead of using these ‘environment unfriendly gases’, he said, efforts were underway to switch to intravenous anesthetics as in the last few decades, there has been a significant increase in the use of intravenous agents for sedation and general anesthesia among anesthesia providers.
“At AKU, we have detailed and comprehensive data from all our facilities and our supply chain. Which guides us to start addressing our emissions hotspots towards reaching net zero emissions by 2030,” he said.
He added the second step is to invest in clean energy. AKU seeks to power a significant portion of its energy needs through renewable energy sources, starting with solar. Which they have initiated at their Stadium Road campus in Karachi and at the French Medical Institute for Mothers and Children in Kabul.
According to him, the third step to achieving the goal of carbon neutrality is to upgrade energy-intensive equipment. (with lower energy-intensive options); such as inverter-driven ACs and LED lights, but also larger machinery.
“The fourth step is to decarbonize buildings and processes. Which takes some investment into the building façade, insulated windows, and sensors. The last but critically important step throughout this journey is to work with all stakeholders on practice and behavior changes. This can include efficient and effective use of equipment, but also green anesthesia and fleet management.”
Terming the ban on entry of cars and other vehicles inside the varsity and hospital campus as ‘impossible’, he said there were some other ways to become carbon neutral, for instance planting more trees at and around the campuses, adding that one of the principles of the environment and climate work across the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is to lead by example.
“This means, we share our learnings widely and encourage stakeholders to be more conscious of their impact on the environment – and that includes all those people who come through our campuses. We have a huge opportunity to educate as we share our journey. And it shows that reducing our impact on the environment is possible,” he observed.
To a query regarding hospital waste disposal, he said emissions from waste result in at least 3 percent of AKU’s operational emissions footprint from the incineration of clinical (biohazardous) waste, municipal landfills for general waste, and recycling (through energy use) of relevant materials.
“Active waste management starts with reducing waste. We have decided to address the issue of single-use plastics by significantly reducing plastic water bottles, leading already to a 77% reduction of these, or nearly 1 million bottles per year,” he claimed.
Dr. Shahabuddin further said, AKU Hospital in Karachi initiated a pilot waste management in June 2021. In which centralized wheeler bins were available in the wards. Into which frontline hospital staff would dispose of hazardous wastes. “It led to a 25% reduction of waste for incineration in the pilot ward. The project is now being extended more widely”.
When asked what they were doing to increase awareness of the impacts of climate change. He said: “Being an AKDN agency, AKU gets guidance by the AKDN Environment and Climate Commitment. That mandates climate action but also invests in climate education.
Many AKU institutes and professors have already engaged in research, publication, and education on environmental and climate-related topics. And this will continue and increase. “We are sharing our learning widely, not just via academic publications. But also by encouraging our suppliers to start their sustainability journeys. For example, by working with governments toward sustainable change.