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How Big Pharma is Increasing Sustainability and Reducing Negative Environmental Impacts

nurse's hands holding a small plant, big pharma, sustainable

As Earth Day approaches, many individuals take into account the sustainability efforts of different industries around the globe. Earth Day reminds us of the importance of doing what we as individuals can do to care for the environment as well as the responsibility of large corporations to keep up with sustainable practices in their operations. 

The healthcare industry is one of the many different industries contributing negatively to climate change. In fact, the healthcare sector is responsible for approximately 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with around half of this footprint coming from healthcare supply chains. However, many pharma and biotech companies are working on reducing their carbon footprint. 

As of 2023, 35 of these companies have joined the UN Race to Zero campaign, accounting for 53% of the sector by revenue. In addition, 63% of pharma and med tech companies in the campaign have started a green lab program, nearly half of which have achieved the My Green Lab Certification at a global scale. Let’s look at the specifics of what big pharma companies are working on in order to improve their sustainability. 

My Green Lab Certification is the global gold standard for laboratory sustainability best practices, providing scientists with actionable ways to make meaningful change. Over 2,000 labs in a range of sectors have been supported by the program which covers fourteen topics related to energy, water, waste, chemistry/materials and engagement.”

Examining active pharmaceutical ingredients

In pharmaceutical manufacturing, there can be significant environmental impacts due to the ingredients that are used. Active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) are key components of medicines that are produced by big pharma companies, and ones that are resource-intensive. The manufacturing of APIs requires heat, their chemical building blocks have fossil origins, and many are manufactured in countries like India and China that have a much more carbon-intensive grid. 

Big pharma company GSK is working with AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Sanofi to tackle the carbon footprint of APIs, and some of these companies are also working together as part of the Sustainable Markets Initiative Health Systems Taskforce. This initiative includes sustainability targets for their suppliers, consisting of setting near-term science-based targets, addressing water and waste, and committing to switch to renewable power.

Renewable power generation

A crucial aspect of reducing big pharma’s carbon footprint is utilizing renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels. The Sustainable Markets Initiative Health Systems Task Force listed several targets for their sustainability efforts, one of which is to switch to at least 80% renewable power by 2030 and explore options to source green heat. 

In January, several big pharma companies including AstraZeneca, Lonza, Novartis, among others, agreed to a power purchase agreement (PPA) that will deliver 200 gigawatt hours (GWh) of renewables annually, for their suppliers across four cities in China. This is a huge step in improving pharmaceutical sustainability.

Standard for Life Cycle Assessments

Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) are measurements of a range of environmental impacts of products or processes over their entire life cycle. By using LCA throughout different aspects and stages of pharmaceutical operations and developments, the industry as a whole can improve their impact on the environment. The Health Systems Taskforce is working with NHS England to develop a sector-wide standard for developing medicines’ LCA, as well as a framework to identify the major influencers of carbon emissions in different healthcare delivery pathways.

Overall, decarbonizing the healthcare industry is a huge challenge and one that takes the efforts of many different pharmaceutical and biotech companies working together. However, these critical steps in improving sustainability in big pharma have the potential to positively impact many lives as well as the environment around us. 

“Shifting to net zero, climate resilient health systems cannot be achieved in siloes. We must collaborate, across the sector and across borders, to secure a healthier tomorrow.”



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