Sustainability In Public Health: A response to PHE’s 2016 report.

We can’t maximise our health if our environments are unsustainable.

Public Health England accept this in their Sustainability In Public Health Report 2016.

I was asked to comment on the report, partly due to my role as Sustainability Rep for BCU’s branch of the Universities & Colleges Union – so here goes:

The first thing that must be said is that if all employers shared Public Health England’s apparent willingness to consider their impact on sustainability, the world would be a healthier place. Also, while I have concerns about PHE’s position, I was to some extent reassured by a conversation recently with PHE’s Paul Cosford, that at least individuals like him were right on the ball.

On the document itself : As so often happens, the focus is on immediate impacts on the physical environment. Important as that is, for true Sustainability/ Sustainable Development, attention must also be paid to the social and economic environment (see my comments at end).

Sustainability1

Buildings

PHE’s buildings use is rightly considered, and some care is being taken with their environmental impact. More information is needed on the impact PHE is having with any office moves, refurbishments and new constructions.

Greenhouse gas emissions

It’s good that there have been some reductions, and wise to have invested in photovoltaics – but any lead organisation like PHE must achieve more than 2.6% reduction per year, if it is to lead the way for Britain to achieve its climate change obligations.
Clearly, the government must reconsider the need for & operation of the facility at Porton, given its huge impact… & what is going on with refrigerant loss at Colindale?

Travel

It’s good that staff train use is up and car use is down (although we must hear why it is that the Chief Operating Officer’s department spends so much on car use). More data would also be welcome on how these cars are powered.
An increase in 73% on international flights is unacceptable (we need to hear how much of this is really due to crises like ebola) – and even worse, that domestic flights within a small country like Britain have also increased by 73%.
It’s welcome that more videoconferencing is being encouraged, but it is insufficient to say “It is hoped that this new technology, which is available for all staff, will help reduce our need to travel for face-to-face meetings,” or, “we will use public transport wherever possible, rather than our own cars”. Clearer intentions and actions are required. Further calculations would also be useful, such as whether the organisation is successfully increasing the proportion of commuting miles cycled/walked/run, compared with car use.

Sustainability training

The staff training on sustainability is welcome, and there are some good, if limited actions on biodiversity. Perhaps more could be said about, eg avoiding the use of pesticides such as glyphosate, and avoiding genetically-modified organisms.
I’m glad that the need for responsible procurement gets a mention – and more detail is needed on how successfully PHE manages to increase the proportion of its purchases which are organic, fairtrade, and locally- or co-operatively- produced, and how much of the electricity used is from renewable sources (not just ‘green tariffs’).

Waste

I’m glad that PHE has reduced its ‘waste’ materials, and especially that landfill has reduced (though we should hear more about what was actually done with its used materials). It’s good that there is a disposal plan for IT equipment – but more must be said about how the need for new IT equipment can be reduced. Indeed, it would be very instructive to have reporting of what goods/materials were acquired during the year, to see if the consumption could be reduced at the outset.

Cold homes

There is brief mention of cold homes (an essential consideration, given that colder countries such as Sweden do not tolerate the excess winter deaths of British citizens condemned to fuel poverty and inadequate housing). I doubt that “Providing local authorities with data on how to improve their housing stock” will have much effect – Councils already know what’s needed, but have had their funding cut. Stronger advice is needed to national government, which could do much more to reinstate the welfare safety net, as well as increasing housing standards (especially in the private rented sector).

Social & economic environment

More could be said on how well PHE is, for example, promoting equality, reflecting the population it serves, and avoiding use of ‘first class/business class’ travel.
On the ‘economic environment’, it would be good to see PHE’s pay ratios within the organisation (including externally-contracted staff), and whether PHE ensures its investments are free from arms, torture, tobacco, and fossil fuels.
So, overall, I would say this document shows a better picture than I would expect (unfortunately) from most employers – but given that PHE is a lead player on sustainable development, even more is needed, if Britain is to reach its sustainable development responsibilities.
I wish Paul Cosford and colleagues all the best for their future actions.

27 Jan 2017
Aldo Mussi
Tutor in Health Promotion/Public Health at Birmingham City University (BCU)
Sustainability Rep for University & Colleges Union at BCU.
aldo.mussi@bcu.ac.uk

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