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Digital technologies: Pharma’s answer to achieving net zero emissions?

A version of this article was previously published in the Journal of mHealth.

As I wrote about earlier this year, it is clear that the climate crisis is no longer something for future generations to worry about, it’s already here and requires our urgent and undivided attention. The Pacific Northwest battled unprecedented “heat domes” in June, with temperatures getting close to 50°C (~120°F) in some places; other parts of western US and Canada remained covered in various degrees of ash and smoke for most of July and August. Likewise, Europe, the Arctic, and many other places in the Northern Hemisphere also experienced record heatwaves and wildfires.

There is a lot of talk among companies about reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050. However, if this summer has taught us nothing else, it’s that that goal needs to be moved to 2030 or earlier if we want to limit the damage already done and ultimately save billions of dollars in healthcare and infrastructure costs.

What can Pharma do?

For Pharma and life science companies aiming to reach net zero, there are a few different paths to take. Some Big Pharma players like Roche are focusing their efforts on reducing energy use and switching to renewable and sustainable sources of energy. Here, technology plays an important role in improving the efficiency of existing solutions such as solar and wind power.

Other approaches organizations can take to minimize their environmental footprint include (but are not limited to):

  • Sourcing materials from local suppliers.
  • Replacing printed materials with online resources.
  • Replacing petroleum-based plastics with bioplastics.
  • Taking measures to avoid or reduce medical waste.
  • Allowing remote/flexible work wherever possible.
  • Replacing their fleet of company vehicles with electric vehicles.
  • Moving away from traditional clinical trials to decentralized or virtual trials.
  • Leveraging virtual or hybrid meetings and events instead of face-to-face meetings, especially for large events that require air travel.
  • Examining the upstream and downstream supply chains and working directly with suppliers to reduce their emissions.

Mitigating Pharma’s footprint: reducing emissions from air travel and land transportation using digital technologies

Man attending virtual meeting; remote work and virtual collaboration are important tools for reaching net zero emissionsThe COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of remote work. While it’s unlikely that Big Pharma will ever become fully remote, offering employees more flexibility in terms of where they work from could help substantially lower emissions associated with commuting to and from the office. Digital technologies such as asynchronous and synchronous collaboration platforms can help keep remote workers engaged, productive, and improve their overall satisfaction with work.

Likewise, virtual event and meeting technologies have evolved substantially over the last year and a half. Several new players have entered the field while pioneers in the space have used the momentum to expand and improve on their offerings. Event organizers have more choices now than ever before; the overwhelming consensus is that virtual and hybrid meetings are the way of the future. Participants are enjoying having the flexibility to attend events in other time zones and/or languages, with technologies such as AI-enabled real-time translation and transcription facilitating multinational events. 

Other innovative use cases of digital technologies in virtual and hybrid events include mobile event apps and virtual reality or 3D immersive experiences. However, while COVID-19 has likely accelerated the digital transformation in Pharma by a decade, we are still only scratching the surface of what’s possible when it comes to hybrid events.

Finally, the concept of remote or decentralized clinical trials is fast gaining interest in the life science industry. This is largely enabled through the use of innovative technologies such as telehealth, electronic medical records, wearables, digital health apps, and blockchain. Decentralized trials are not only more environmentally friendly by removing the need for patients to visit a central study site, but are also more cost-effective, patient-centric, and will enable more diverse study populations.

Examining the supply chain: role of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence

In Pharma–as in most sectors–the largest source of emissions comes from so-called Scope 3 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That is: all indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain aside from indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling (Scope 2 emissions). This is why it is key to take a critical look at your upstream and downstream supply chains.

Most companies will have access to one or two levels of suppliers, but what about your suppliers’ suppliers’ suppliers’ suppliers? Things can get complicated very quickly for large companies. Again, this is where technology has the potential to be a real game-changer.

To optimize your supply chain and identify areas of improvement, you first need to collect data. Here, technologies such as blockchain and AI can be leveraged to passively and safely collect data and to improve interoperability between disparate data lakes in order to give a full picture. Once we have the data, being able to see what’s going on in real-time will make it easier to determine the most impactful and pressing actions. Given the tight deadlines we are working with, collecting these data needs to be a top priority for all organizations.

Concurrently, there is also a clear need for a universally agreed-upon methodology for measuring and reporting GHG emissions from the supply chain. We need harmonized goals and regulations across the life science industry. This will require collaboration and data-sharing among organizations, even among competitors.

Fighting the climate crisis is a team sport and the price of inaction is just too great.


About the author: Natalie Yeadon

Impetus Digital Co-Owner/Managing Director

Natalie worked in the pharmaceutical industry for over 18 years in a variety of sales, marketing, and early brand commercialization management roles. Currently, she is the Co-owner and Managing Director of Impetus Digital where she dedicates her time to helping life science companies create sustained and authentic relationships with their key customers through Impetus’ cutting-edge online collaboration platform, the Impetus InSite Platform®.

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