This Earth Day, the industry must pledge to build a green pharma sector

For decades the preservation of the only known habitable planet has been the most important challenge confronting governments, citizens, and industry. In 1970 the first ‘Earth Day’ was commemorated to nudge everyone to play their part in conserving the planet. However, 50 years later, the climate crisis glares at us, spelling doom for our economic and social prosperity. This year’s Earth Day has called upon governments, citizens, and industries to preserve our planet by investing in sustainable practices to ensure that future generations have a habitable planet. This mission is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal-9 (UN SDG-9), which aims to foster innovation and promote the adoption of a sustainable industrialization process.

Unsustainable development practices have accelerated the pace of climate change, the negative impacts of which are now approaching us faster. This has made more than 40% of the world population highly vulnerable to climate change. By pushing around 132 million people into poverty over the next ten years, climate change holds the potential to undo the gains from development.

Although various industries have played their part in putting economies on their growth trajectories, the pharmaceutical industry has been the engine of growth, especially for countries like India and China.

Simultaneously, the industry has been a bedrock for social development by creating new medicines and advancements in healthcare facilities that improve life expectancy and eradicate diseases such as Smallpox and Rinderpest.

Nevertheless, the industry is also associated with a negative externality that is often neglected: – the industry’s carbon footprint. Reportedly, the healthcare industry accounted for 1.9 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) generation in 2017 and has 55% higher emission intensity than the automotive sector. Additionally, the discharge of untreated effluents from some antibiotics manufacturers leads to the spread of AMR, which is already touted as one of the top 10 public health threats facing humankind.

AMR holds the potential to reduce the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by about 3%, cause 10 million deaths and push 28 million people into poverty by 2050.

There is thus a need to reduce the carbon footprint and the discharge of untreated effluents from the pharmaceutical sector. Moving towards ESG (environmental, social, and governance) norms is one of the ways to reduce the carbon footprint. By quantitatively evaluating the sustainability practices of a firm, the ESG norms are a step up when compared to CSR (corporate social responsibility) norms, which focus their aim solely on improving accountability by incorporating qualitative goals. However, between 2016 to 2021, while the ESG fillings for the non-healthcare companies rose to 4%, they remained abysmally low at 2.9% for the pharmaceutical companies.

Besides ensuring sustainable production, there is also a need to ensure sustainable procurement practices for pharmaceuticals. While countries such as Sweden and Norway have been pioneers in adopting such practices, others such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark are investigating their options. The United Nations (UN) has also recognized the importance of public procurement in achieving UN SDG-12 (Responsible consumption and production). Consequently, the UN launched its Sustainable Procurement in Health Sector (UN-SPHS) initiative with a purchasing power of about USD 4 billion. The initiative aims at lowering the environmental impact of procurement and production practices. Further, to strengthen the procurement, production, and disposal practices of healthcare products in Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), the initiative runs the Sustainable Health in Procurement Projects (SHiPP).

Being the third-largest producer of pharmaceutical products worldwide, it is imperative for the Indian government to ensure that its sustainability policies concerning the pharmaceutical sector are in line with the globally established practices and standards. Additionally, the government needs to undertake measures to prevent environmental contamination. Adopting stringent norms such as those advocated in the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change’s (MoEF&CC’s) draft notification in January 2020, would help prevent the discharge of untreated effluents. The Indian government could also incentivize smaller companies to facilitate the adoption of newer and greener technology. Concurrently, the government can join hands with the citizens and the industry in setting up eco-industrial parks. This would help ensure enhanced economic gains and environmental quality. Cohesive actions are thus needed to ensure the viability of our planet. On this Earth Day, we would like to take this opportunity to urge academia, industry, government, and citizens to collectively pledge to invest in our planet in order to ensure its sustainability for future generations.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.