Achieving net-zero medicine through innovation

Published: 7-Sep-2022

How the laboratory industry can tackle carbon emissions when developing drugs

At the start of July 2022, the NHS became the first health system to embed net zero into legislation. However, its goal of achieving net zero by 2040 is challenging when every stage of the pharmaceutical supply chain has a carbon footprint, from packaging pills to active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) development.

Here, Aleiya Lonsdale, Head of Event, at the UK’s largest laboratory trade show — Lab Innovations — explains how pharmaceutical companies in the UK can do their part to help reach this goal.

To identify the best route towards net-zero emissions, the NHS established an NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, which reviewed around 600 pieces of evidence and used it to conduct extensive analysis and modelling.

Two targets were created as a result of this analysis. For the emissions that the NHS controls directly (the NHS carbon footprint), the aim is to reach net zero by 2040 with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2028-2032.

For emissions that the NHS influences (the NHS carbon footprint plus), the aim is to reach net zero by 2045 with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2036-2039.

One suggestion the NHS has made in it’s Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service report is to focus on interventions in medicine, which accounts for 25% of emissions within the NHS.

These emissions are primarily caused by anaesthetic gases (2% of emissions) and inhalers (3% of emissions) that occur at the point of use. The remaining 20% of emissions were found within the supply chain from manufacturing to transportation.

How can we make medicine more sustainable?

One way that pharmaceutical companies are trying to decarbonise is through developing low carbon inhalers. Most emissions from inhalers come from the propellant in metered-dose inhalers, rather than the gas itself.

Forty five per cent of GSK’s total carbon emissions are a result of metered-dose inhalers. To tackle this, GSK has started an initiative to find a more environmentally friendly propellant alternative. One of these propellants that is currently in preclinical testing, is anticipated to reduce inhaler related emissions by up to 90%.

Drug formulation also has an impact on carbon emissions, particularly when it comes to how a drug needs to be stored. For example, during COVID-19, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna both used similar mRNA technology.

Achieving net-zero medicine through innovation

However, Pfizer’s vaccine needed to be stored at a much lower temperature, between –80 °C and –60 °C, whereas Moderna’s vaccine could be stored in a standard freezer, which kept the vaccine at -25 °C to -15 °C.

When a drug is formulated so it can be stored at a closer ambient temperature, it reduces the amount of energy required to keep it stable in the long term, reducing carbon emissions.

Finally, organisations such as My Green Lab and Green Light Laboratories have been created to help laboratories improve their environmental impact by reducing energy consumption and reliance on single-use plastics.

One method of achieving this is through the My Green Lab Certification. By asking 50% of people within a lab to complete a survey, My Green Lab can discern what priorities need to be made to improve a labs sustainability.

Solutions as a result of the survey could include changing suppliers, changing the set points of freezers or simply turning off equipment when not in use.

Decarbonising medicine not only benefits the planet, but is also a preventive form of healthcare. The health effects of climate change include heat-stroke, asthma, malnutrition and many more.

You may also like