Note: This opinion piece was compiled by means of a telephone interview with James who has asked me to highlight that this represents his personal views on the subject, for sharing with IEMA colleagues, and not those of his employer (author, Clare Topping MIEMA CEnv, Energy & Sustainability Manager at Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust)

The Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (NUTH) is the first NHS organisation to declare  a Climate Emergency and to publically commit to an ambitious target of carbon neutrality by 2040.  James Dixon shares his personal views on eco-anxiety, his journey to getting Newcastle Hospitals to declare a climate emergency, and what that might mean in practice:

I have been at Newcastle Hospitals  since 2010, and we have done a lot of good work to deliver more sustainable healthcare services including: on-site CHP; purchasing renewables for any top-up grid electricity we require; recycling over 40% of our non-clinical waste; sending zero waste to landfill since 2011 and investing in electric vehicles and buses for staff.  But in 2018 with the wide-spread media attention of our impending climate breakdown, from the likes of the IPCC report, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR), I personally felt as though I was not doing enough; it felt as though we had lost momentum.  I had started to suffer from Eco Anxiety. 

At the beginning of 2019 I attended an NHS Sustainability Leads meeting in London.  I heard about the great things being done in Bristol by Sam Willitts and Esther Coffin-Smith, and the cross city consensus gathering in Manchester with Claire Igoe.  This pushed me to start mapping out what needed to happen at Newcastle. 

The first step was to get in front of the Board.  It was rare that anything related to Sustainability, other than our annual Sustainability report, was tabled  at Board.  I persuaded our  Estates Director to take a one page proposal paper to the weekly Executive Team meeting, requesting that the Trust make a bold move and declare a Climate Emergency.  The paper was well received, with the hooks of civic collaboration (Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University had already declared) and establishing a leadership position with regards to action on the biggest threat to global health this century (and the moral imperative of ‘first do no harm’ enshrined in the Hippocratic oath).

Whilst initial feedback was positive, the Executive Team did seek clarification on deliverability and cost before agreeing to table at Board.  After several email conversations, during which potential for carbon offsetting was raised and then reserved for 2040, we had agreed on a more detailed final paper to be presented to the final Executive Team meeting before the deadline for June Board meeting papers.

Feeling like the opportunity was slipping away, I decided to gift a copy of Greta Thunberg’s book ‘No One is Too Small to Make a Difference‘ to Dame Jackie Daniel, the Chief Executive Officer of the Trust.  Knowing that Dame Jackie loves a good book, and is a keen advocate  of compassionate leadership and empowering staff, I thought it might help demonstrate the drivers but also the benefits of approval. I arrived early on the morning of the Exec Team meeting and delivering it to her office I asked her PA to ensure she received it before the meeting was due to start. This achieved, I waited anxiously with my fingers crossed.  The proposal paper was approved by the Exec Team, allowing it to go to  the full Board meeting with Executive Director backing, and I received a lovely thank you email from Dame Jackie later that day  Two weeks later and I was in front of my first public meeting of the Trust Board of Directors. I was given an eight minute slot to table my proposal paper, so I took the opportunity and put a few key slides together to help persuade them. I included: what the declaration meant to us (three key elements linked to the XR demands of telling the truth about the climate crisis, acting now on carbon reduction and collaborating with a civic assembly); how we might achieve it (a graph showing various scenarios, i.e. business-as-usual, demand reduction including the grid decarbonisation forecasts and potential for the Northern Hydrogen network to be live by 2035); assurance of good performance in this field to-date (key Sustainability Team achievements) and ending on why we should (greatest threat to health this century, moral duty to reduce harm from carbon and air pollution i.e. ‘first do no harm’). That said, I knew a leap of faith was still required so my last slide cited Greta Thunberg’s ’Cathedral Thinking’ analogy - that they needed to be brave and lay the foundations without knowing what the ceiling looks like. The presentation was very well received and the proposal was unanimously agreed!

Although our overall declaration includes all scopes of our greenhouse gas emissions, we are focusing on driving down our Scope 1 and 2 emissions which, as a large city centre specialist acute hospitals Trust, the vast majority is building energy related.  We are not ignoring Scope 3, but at the moment it is difficult to measure and account for this accurately for all that we buy, so accounting for progress in this area is still a work in progress. I had to manage the Board’s expectations on this, highlighting that this still sits within our action plan but progress will be demonstrated through case studies whilst we work with NHS England on NHS scope 3 accounting granularity.

Dame Jackie is now a big advocate for bolder action and is putting it on the Agenda wherever possible, and at much higher levels than I would have thought possible six months ago.  She believes that action on Climate Change is very inclusive – whatever someone’s status we all need to breathe and have access to food and water, whatever someone’s carbon footprint, there is something everyone can do individually.

Whilst this covers the significant improvement in my work-related Eco Anxiety, I am not stopping there.  I want to do more to bring about the system change required, ensuring our MPs and government do everything they can to meet the existential crisis that is climate breakdown. I’m been so impressed with the progress that Extinction Rebellion have made to bring this to the public conscience – I feel compelled to ensure I’m doing everything I can to ensure I’m on the right side of history. This is our generation’s civil rights movement. I’ve attended School strikes for climate with my daughter and have supported local XR activities in Newcastle.

In starting to read more widely on climate science I believe that the IPCC reports are a more politically acceptable version of what our near-term climate scenarios will look like, and I still despair about what the future holds for my children. I’ll keep doing everything within my power to mitigate this but, without urgent and systemic change from central government, our focus will soon have to change to deep adaptation in order to address the likely climate and social impacts of this crisis.

 Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the individual contributing member, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated.

About the Author

Clare is the Energy and Sustainability Manager at Northampton General Hospital.