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At the recent COP28 climate change conference in the UAE, industry bodies representing innovative drug developers were keen to show off Big Pharma’s burgeoning credentials as green pioneers. British Biopharma outfit GSK, for example, has committed to becoming completely operationally net zero by 2045. To do this the company is rolling out an R&D programme to identify an alternative, greener propellant for their rescue inhalers for the treatment of asthma.

Although metered dose inhalers (MDIs) containing ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons were phased out in the late 1990s, today’s devices still contain hydrofluorocarbons, which constitute potent greenhouse gases. In the case of GSK, a leader in respiratory medicine, this means that its inhalers still make up a disproportionate 45 percent of the company’s entire operational emissions footprint.

Meanwhile some studies suggest that healthcare might be responsible for up to 4.4 percent of global emissions: more per dollar of revenue than the automotive sector! This is partly because manufacturing of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) for small-molecule drugs relies largely on chemicals derived from fossil fuels. At the same time, the biggest contributor to carbon emissions from pharmaceuticals has historically been the actual energy source deployed for production.

With vast volumes of APIs and small molecule generics fabricated by contract manufacturers based out of India, which still leans heavily on the dirtiest fossil fuel of all, coal, for power, there clearly remains much scope for improvement. Analysis suggests that simply by switching over to renewable energy sources, pharmaceutical companies could slash their carbon footprint by up to 45 percent.

At the same time, steps to substitute fossil fuel-based chemicals with synthetic biology based on chemical processes exhibited within nature – such as microbial enzymes, or a fermentation-based methods – could potentially significantly reduce the energy-intensive chemical synthesis of raw materials.

Given that the majority of emissions within the health sector derive from scope 3 emissions which are not directly under the control of the drug developer but lie instead with a supplier or partner, this area has also become a major battleground for fresh initiatives.

Pfizer, for instance, aims to decrease its greenhouse gas (GHG) value chain emissions by 90 percent, from 2019 levels, by 2040, and plans to achieve this through renewable energy investments, and by aiding suppliers to set science-based emission reduction KPIs and minimise upstream logistics.

Danish specialty player, Novo Nordisk, for its part, won much praise when it took the pioneering step of announcing that all direct suppliers – numbering some 60.000 entities in total – must utilise renewable power when supplying them in 2030, if they are to retain their service contracts. Moreover, the company is requesting that its suppliers demand the same exacting standards of their own suppliers.

While the deployment of renewable energy for manufacturing would constitute a big step forward for many drugmakers, some producers are also considering continuous manufacturing. This represents a more efficient alternative to batch manufacturing, as it combines multiple production stages into a single, and more sustainable, continuous production line.

Finally, there will be the necessity for drug developers to factor in a need for climate change adaption. Not only will climate change likely be an important driver of evolving epidemiological profiles across many regions and thus require adjustment of product line to fit changing demand patterns, but supply chains shall need to be rendered more resilience especially in heat stressed parts of the globe.

Drug makers will therefore need to invest in R&D geared towards promoting better use of products in climate-affected settings. Given the existing immaturity of logistics and storage infrastructure across many lower-income countries, there is an urgent requirement for more heat-stable medications and resilient cold-chain supply networks.