Why Pharma Needs to Care About Global Warming

A version of this article was previously published on Pharmaphorum.

Barely a day goes by without global warming or climate change (now more appropriately termed “climate crisis”) being in the news. In June, Europe experienced a record heatwave with temperatures reaching almost 46°C (115°F). This is literally unheard of. Earlier this year, reports from the European Academies Science Advisory Council and UN Environment were released, both highlighting the urgent need for action. While many politicians are sadly making global warming a partisan issue, the science doesn’t lie: climate change is real, it is man-made, and – unless we do something about it soon – it will be devastating.

In addition to its effects on increasing sea levels, extreme weather phenomena, loss of biodiversity, water acidification, and coral bleaching, global warming is also having an effect on several different aspects of human health (and thereby on Pharma). 

Effects of Global Warming on Human Health

First, there will be direct effects from extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, and floods. These include dehydration, malnutrition, overheating, and increased risks of cardiovascular and renal diseases. Particularly, high-risk groups such as children, elderly, pregnant women, and marginalized populations will be vulnerable.

Second, as the global temperature rises, the air quality will decline. Further, forest fires due to extreme heat and dry conditions will become more common. As a result, we can expect to see the incidence, prevalence, and severity of respiratory conditions such as asthma, allergic rhinitis, and COPD increase substantially.

Third, warmer climate is leading to disease vectors moving to increasingly higher latitudes, without being stopped by cold winters. Especially, reports suggest that expanded geographical spread of tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever is likely. For the same reason, soil-, food- and water-borne diarrheal diseases will also become more prevalent worldwide.

Fourth, an increase in mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and suicide, secondary to the effects of global warming is expected. According to reports, there will be anywhere from 25 million to 1 billion (yes that’s “billion” with a “b”!) climate refugees by 2050. However, even for those living in areas that may not be as severely affected, the uncertainty of our planet’s future is sure to have an adverse effect on millions of people’s mental wellbeing.

So Where Does This Leave Pharma?

As these diseases become more and more common, Pharma needs to start planning ahead. This includes reviewing the need to increase global supplies of drugs and vaccines against climate crisis-induced diseases, whether non-communicable or infectious in nature. It may also be necessary to enhance research efforts related to the treatment of infectious and tropical diseases.

Other things to keep in mind is the potential for natural disasters such as flooding to cause displacement of medicines or damage to pharmaceutical plants. To avoid future financial loss, Pharma needs to establish robust infrastructure, supply chains, and distribution networks. They must also have clear emergency plans in place to avoid or quickly be able to deal with the fallout from these events.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that Pharma, just like any other industry, needs to make a commitment to make their own operations more climate-friendly. This is no longer a “nice to have” or optional feature that could help improve people’s perception of a pharmaceutical company (although that is for sure an added bonus), but an absolute must. Assuming that you want your grandchildren to breathe clean air and be healthy, everyone needs to do their part.

Practical Tips for Actually Making a Difference

Limiting the global temperature rise this century below 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the Paris Agreement on climate change, may seem like an impossible task. However, giving up is simply not an option. There are multiple ways Pharma can help reduce their carbon footprint and work towards carbon neutrality. The below list is far from comprehensive, but outlines a few ways that Pharma companies and teams can help reach this goal:

  1. Reduce energy use at manufacturing sites and Pharma headquarters. This can involve anything from changing all light bulbs to more energy-efficient ones and making sure that you turn off all lights and electronic devices when leaving your office for the day to installing solar panels or even a wind turbine to produce electricity for the plant. Simple things like increasing the room temperature in summer and lowering it in winter also help conserve energy. The manufacturing process itself may also need to be reviewed and revised. For example, could you use recycled materials or get rid of excessive packaging? Are you using the most energy-efficient freezers and refrigerators? Is there a way to use less water? Less electricity?
  2. Recycle and reuse as much as possible. This includes materials such as plastic and glass used during the manufacturing and compounding processes, but also everyday things like paper (e.g. faxes, letters, outdated educational materials, cardboard boxes – you name it!)
  3. Plant trees (lots of them). Probably one of the simplest things we can do to battle climate change is to plant more trees while also working to minimize deforestation. When building new Pharma plants, plan the layout so that trees can be incorporated throughout the property. Having access to a green space has also been shown to have positive effects on mental health, so this one should be a no-brainer. In cases where this is not an option, consider donating money to plant trees elsewhere or to organizations fighting deforestation. On an individual level, little things like avoiding products with palm oil and changing your default browser to Ecosia can all help save trees.
  4. Minimize driving by offering employees free or discounted public transport passes or other perks such as grants towards buying a bicycle or electric/hybrid car. The same strategy could also be employed for clinical trial participants and investigators who have to travel to get to the study site, or as part of patient support programs. For office workers, consider whether they really need to come to the office five days a week or whether they could work remotely at least part of the time.
  5. Whenever possible, don’t fly; if you have to, fly economy and make sure that you pay the optional carbon offset fee offered by most airlines. Related to this point, it is a good idea to plan meetings such as advisory board or working group meetings so that they coincide with national or international conferences, eliminating the need for the participants to take an extra trip just for a single meeting. As an alternative, moving such meetings online is another strategy for companies to reduce their carbon footprint.
  6. When planning in-person events, whether internal team meetings, advisory boards, lunch-and-learns, or large conferences, offer a locally sourced and largely vegetarian/vegan menu, as animal husbandry and meat consumption (especially beef) are major contributors to carbon emissions and climate change.
  7. Invest in and utilize novel digital technologies across all operations. Possible ways to digitalize Pharma operations will require out-of-the-box thinking and could take up an entire article on its own. Among many other applications, consider conducting virtual medical education sessions over in-person lectures, using online forums to facilitate collaboration between clinical trial sites or internal cross-functional teams, and developing online or mobile educational materials instead of printed handouts that will eventually end up in the trash anyway.
  8. Anything and everything. Fund charities and initiatives aimed at fighting climate change. Advocate for change with your local lawmakers. Work with local and global hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies to help them prepare for the shift in patient needs that will inevitably take place in the next few decades. The list goes on and on…

Key Takeaways

When planning your pipeline and deciding which areas to invest in, Pharma needs to keep in mind the likely effects of climate change on environmental factors and human health. This includes tomorrow, next year, and 10, 20, or 50 years from now. When building new plants or office spaces, consider their environmental impact. Work to make them energy-efficient or even carbon neutral from the start. Remember to have emergency plans in place if natural disasters occur. Finally, whether you are a Pharma executive or at the bottom of the corporate ladder, make it a priority to reduce your carbon footprint in any way you can. Remember – no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.


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