As COP26 draws to a close this week, Mark Reynolds, NHS Digital’s chief technology officer, discusses the sustainability challenges that face the digital sector and how the organisation plans to tackle them over the coming months and years.

We only have to look to the last eighteen months to see how the use of virtual consultations and digital collaboration has reduced the need for transport and office or clinic working.

This helped to fuel a measurable, if temporary, impact on the environment during the pandemic.  In September, the UN released a report which showed that CO2 emissions worldwide fell dramatically during 2020, before recovering by 2021.

Digital services can provide the opportunity to dramatically improve how and where care is given, and therefore be a powerful part of the solution.

However, they also have their own carbon footprint and so need to be considered as part of the journey to net zero. NHS England’s ‘Delivering a Net Zero NHS’ states that the supply chain is currently estimated to emit 456 ktCO2e from information and communications technology (ICT) alone.

Low-carbon digital

While energy efficiency is improving all the time, a rapid growth in data demand and digital equipment has the potential to add to these emissions unless we specify lower-carbon digital products and services from our suppliers. As the digital provider of national services and data to health and care, NHS Digital has a role to play.

Our most important contribution will be to ensure that our systems and services become carbon neutral by the NHS targets. We rely on our supply chain to deliver our services and need to signal to them the importance of becoming net zero.

With all this in mind, we will:

  • Use our position as a national provider to ensure that this goal is communicated for and on behalf of the NHS.
  • Look to change our own practice, for example through optimising hybrid working and only sparingly using flights.
  • Focus on our organisational efficiency, as better use of resources will also benefit our carbon footprint.
  • Become better at measuring, reporting and acting upon the decisions we make and how they contribute to net zero.

We are also a significant employer. Our intention is to support colleagues as they green their own lives. There is already active participation in our Green Digits network, a community of colleagues who champion sustainable working practices and a focus on recycling and energy efficiency within our offices.

Taking action

Even with this work, we’re looking to extend the support we offer to staff, for example ensuring our lease car scheme provides electric vehicles and providing information on how staff can take action. We recognise that electric cars, heat pumps and solar panels are not familiar to all our staff and so we’ll help them with the transition. This is a new area for us, but one where we have the opportunity to support shared values.

The strength of the health and care community is when we stand as one. As we gain experience, learning what works and what doesn’t, we will share this in the open. Alongside colleagues at NHSX, we will support the NHS with the adoption of new technologies such as cloud that will improve resilience and lower carbon emissions and learn from others as we progress this work together. Net zero is a goal that we must all achieve together.