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CommonSpirit Health leaders lead push toward sustainability focus in health care

March 2024

CommonSpirit Health Chief Advocacy Officer and CHA board member Shelly Schlenker speaks on a panel in December at the 2023 UN Climate Conference, known as COP28. She and Rachelle Wenger, CommonSpirit's system vice president of public policy and advocacy engagement, attended and spoke at conference events.


CommonSpirit Health had a seat at the table when world leaders came together to discuss solutions for climate change.

Chicago-based CommonSpirit was the only Catholic health system in attendance at the 2023 U.N. Climate Conference, known as COP28, Nov. 30-Dec. 12. The conference included the first-ever Health Day, dedicated exclusively to the intersection of health care and climate change. Yet few U.S. hospital systems sent representatives.


CommonSpirit announced its climate action plan with fanfare two years ago and has a decades-long commitment to sustainability.

"We were in attendance at COP21 in Paris when the climate accord was signed, and we announced our industry-leading goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions at COP26," said Chief Advocacy Officer Shelly Schlenker. "At COP28 our commitment went even further as we convened a group of 27 global health care leaders to discuss worldwide sustainability goals."


Schlenker, a CHA board member, attended the conference with Rachelle Wenger, CommonSpirit's system vice president of public policy and advocacy engagement. Schlenker participated in six events as a speaker, panelist or invited guest. Wenger spoke at one event and participated in a roundtable at another. Each attended about a dozen events overall.

"It was a wonderful way for a health care system in the United States to say, 'This is what we're doing.' It was a really special moment for us to be able to carry the banner not only for CommonSpirit Health, but U.S. health care," said Wenger.

The atmosphere at the conference was electric, they said. The venue buzzed with thousands of people from 200 countries.

Pope Francis was supposed to speak at the conference but couldn't travel as he recovered from the flu. A representative read his message, which reiterated his belief that "the future of us all depends on the present that we now choose."

CommonSpirit is pursuing several environmental goals, including achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 with an interim goal of reducing operational emissions by half by 2030.

The system is in coalition with various partners and has joined several climate and sustainability initiatives, including America is All In, a whole-of-society mobilization to deliver transformational change, and the Laudato Si Challenge and Season of Creation action inspired by Pope Francis. CommonSpirit also participates in the HHS Health Sector Climate Pledge and in White House roundtables on safety net providers and greenhouse gas emissions.

Other member health care systems are a part of the same or similar initiatives, including Providence St. Joseph Health, which is working to be net carbon negative by 2030, and Ascension, which has pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions and zero waste by 2040.

The health care sector accounts for about 8.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and more people are learning about and making connections between global and personal health, Schlenker and Wenger said.

Wenger said the conference "was an opportunity to influence the health care sector and also to help the rest of the world understand health systems' commitment."

She and Schlenker shared examples of initiatives at CommonSpirit that support both health and sustainability, because human health is inextricable with the environment, they said. They talked about CommonSpirit's virtual nursing program, in which nurses work remotely and meet with patients via screens to take information such as health histories and answer questions. They pointed out that the program reduces greenhouse gas emissions because some nurses are working from home rather than driving. They said it also has reduced nursing turnover rates and increased patient satisfaction because of the increased access to nurses.

Especially in early sustainability efforts, helping the environment can also save money, which can be allocated to other resources and efforts, they pointed out.

"Everybody doing a little bit over time has a huge ripple effect," said Schlenker. "And so, if anything, we've been trying to be the cheerleaders of: Start the journey. It doesn't matter where or how small. Just start."


Copyright © 2024 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States