Just Read: Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry – “Significantly worse than the automotive industry”

2018.05 Low Carb and Low Carbon - Ted Eytan MD 1001-766
Low Carb and Low Carbon – Ted Eytan MD 1001-766 – “The pharmaceutical sector is far from being a green sector. In fact, the sector’s emission intensity in 2015was 48.55 Mt-CO2e/$M, which is about 55% higher than that of the Automotive sector of 31.4 Mt-CO2e/$M for that same year (Jackson and Belkhir, 2018). In absolute value, we estimated the aggregate global emissions of the Pharma sector to amount to about 52 MMt-CO2e in 2015 compared to about 46.4 MMt-CO2e emitted by the global automotive sector in that same year (Statista, 2018a) (where ”MMt” indicates Million of Metric tons).”

Source: Belkhir L, Elmeligi A. Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players. J Clean Prod [Internet]. 2019;214:185–94. (View on Flickr.com)

I was highly interested in reading this paper because I have informally worked to understand the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the pharmaceutical industry through their own web sites, and usually leave confused and uninformed. Apparently, it’s not just me.

This analysis includes the use of datasets that are not publicly available for the major pharmaceutical companies that report their emissions. The authors also compared absolute number of emissions and relative emission intensity, to take growth and revenue into account.

Unexpectedly, we found that the Pharma industry, on average, is a higher intensity emitter than the automotive industry … Also, we have found a much greater variability among the Pharma industry than the automotive industry.Belkhir L, Elmeligi A. Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players. J Clean Prod [Internet]. 2019;214:185–94.

The authors further cite a lack of transparency that I also found in my informal review:

…overall the environmental performance of the pharmaceutical sector in general, and their GHG emissions in particular, are much worse than generally portrayed by the industry’s greenwashing tactics and their sustainability reports.Belkhir L, Elmeligi A. Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players. J Clean Prod [Internet]. 2019;214:185–94.

How this is related to diet and a Sustainable Diet

The average US person who has diabetes requires almost $5000 USD/year of diabetes medications. This translates into 2.01 metric tons CO2/year emissions, exceeding the amount of emissions they might save by going vegan in one year, for example.

2018.08.07 Low Carb and Low Carbon 520
2018.08.07 Low Carb and Low Carbon 520 (View on Flickr.com)

If a person was able to reverse their (Type II) diabetes or otherwise reduce their medication use, their carbon footprint would go down, significantly so. The American Diabetes Association has amended their lifestyle recommendations from January, 2019 to suggest exactly that:

For select adults with type 2 diabetes not meeting glycemic targets or where reducing glucose-lowering medications is a priority, reducing overall carbohydrate intake with low- or very low carbohydrate eating plans is a viable approach.American Diabetes Association. 5. Lifestyle Management: Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes—2019. Diabetes Care [Internet]. 2019 Jan 1 [cited 2019 Sep 5];42(Supplement 1):S46–60.

Unfortunately, a significant amount of cognitive dissonance exists inside and outside of the medical profession, resulting in policies like this:

2019.06.27 Low Carb and Low Carbon, Washington DC USA 1780005
2019.06.27 Low Carb and Low Carbon, Washington DC USA 1780005 (View on Flickr.com)

The interesting case of Bayer

Bayer is a conglomerate of the most interesting kind in this space. It manufactures:

2018.05 Low Carb and Low Carbon - Ted Eytan MD 3-1003-764
Producing products derived from bioengineering, as well as those created to manage their potential harms to human health (View on Flickr.com)
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Medical Devices
  • Agricultural commodities (including soybeans of the GMO variety, perhaps ones of the kind used in today’s ultra-processed artificial-food burgers, as well as herbicides declared probable carcinogens by the World Health Organization (@who))

I might call this the trifecta of chronic disease creation and mitigation all at the same time.

Bayer also does not break out its GHG emissions by division, which gives it an extremely high emissions intensity compared to the other companies who report, about 4.2 times greater than the pharmaceutical sector.

To make matters worse, Bayer reports and tracks its emission intensity in terms of tons ofCO2e per ton ofmanufactured sales volume (Bayer, 2015, 2018), regardless of whether the man- ufactured goods are pharmaceutical products, medical devices or agricultural products. In other words, a ton of fertilizer and a ton of aspirin, are equally accounted for with respect to the level of emissions they generate.Belkhir L, Elmeligi A. Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players. J Clean Prod [Internet]. 2019;214:185–94.

Climate change is a threat to human health. Physicians have an important role to play in understanding and supporting pathways to healthy people and healthy planet, not one or the other.

References

  1. Belkhir L, Elmeligi A. Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players. J Clean Prod [Internet]. 2019;214:185–94.
  2. American Diabetes Association. 5. Lifestyle Management: Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes—2019. Diabetes Care [Internet]. 2019 Jan 1 [cited 2019 Sep 5];42(Supplement 1):S46–60.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.