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June 24, 2010

Hospitals: get ready for climate change laws

  • New regulations may be on the way. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions now could soon reap dividends.


    This year is shaping up to be another eventful one for the health care industry. From health care reform to patient safety and the economic recession, health care companies are working on all fronts just to keep up.

    And while most health care companies do a reasonably good job at minimizing the risks and maximizing opportunities they’ve faced in the past, there is an issue looming on the near horizon to which most companies haven’t given much thought. Like all big risks, it also represents a tremendous opportunity if managed well.

    The issue: climate change. It may seem like a scientific and political problem, but like all big societal problems, it contains direct implications for hospitals, clinics, medical staff, patients and management alike.

    Understanding current and future climate change law can be complex, particularly since this is all relatively new territory. One big question is about who will regulate whom. Governments and agencies at all levels have stepped in to try to fill the regulatory void.

    On the voluntary, standard-setting side, trade associations and nonprofit organizations like the American Institute of Architects, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and the American Society for Healthcare Engineering have also been working on emissions-reducing goals, standards and certifications for buildings and building operations, including health care facilities.

    In recent years there have been several high-profile lawsuits against private companies involved in the energy industry, which may indicate a wider corporate vulnerability for companies who do not act soon to lower emissions. The most high-profile of these is Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, which pits a tiny, low-lying Alaskan island facing climate change-related erosion against a dozen fuel and utility companies.

    Impacts on health care

    So what do all these trends have to do with health care?

    First, hospitals and clinics are big energy users, and since the majority of the nation’s energy comes from greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels, health care companies could be responsible for a higher percentage of emissions under certain regulatory schemes than would be assigned to a similarly sized commercial building.

    Second, many states and jurisdictions are considering or have already adopted energy-efficient building standards and codes that may affect health care companies’ future operations, expansions and renovations.

    Though hospitals are currently exempted from the first-ever mandatory statewide green building code adopted recently in California (called CALGreen), there is no guarantee that hospitals will be exempted in future updates.

    Over the last decade, an increasing focus of building regulators has been on energy efficiency and emissions reductions. In 2007, the city of Seattle began requiring greenhouse gas emissions worksheets from building permit applicants in order to track and quantify the impacts of individual projects.

    Third, consumers — for health care, this means patients and their families — are becoming increasingly aware of environmental sustainability, and are making purchasing decisions based on their perceptions of corporate sustainability.

    In response, mainline brands like Walmart, General Electric and Starbucks have moved to make their operations and products more sustainable, and have earned positive attention because of it. The early movers in health care who decide to do the same will enjoy the same benefits to their reputation and brand.

    What you can do

    Despite all the uncertainty, and the fact that some of the upcoming regulation will likely have costs, the good news is that health care companies can start now by tackling the easy, low-hanging fruit in their operations.

    • Measure and benchmark. Finding out how many greenhouse gas emissions you are responsible for is becoming easier, as tools and systems for measurement improve and more companies begin to provide the measurement services. More and more of our clients are willing to consider tracking and reducing their emissions since we introduced our climate change consulting practice last year.

    • Consider your options. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For some organizations, focusing on energy efficiency upgrades may be a primary focus. For others, a renewable energy strategy will fit the bill.

    The options you choose for reductions will need to match your organization’s strategic goals, budget, culture and operating strategy for your facilities. The important thing is to build a plan that’s right for you.

    • Find financing. There are numerous financial incentives and tools that health care companies can use to bring down the cost of energy efficiency and renewable energy investments. These include federal and state tax credits, utility incentives/programs, power purchase agreements and grants.

    • Implement. Ultimately, reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and reaping the energy and money savings that result — should be part of your organization’s overall strategic plan, something that is part of business as usual. Don’t forget to tell others about what you are doing — you will gain a better reputation for corporate leadership and may inspire others to act as well.

    Arash Guity is the chief climate change engineer at Mazzetti Nash Lipsey Burch, and has over 6 years’ experience in the design and construction of health care facilities.

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