The pharma industry environmental impact

The health sector is responsible for 4.4% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions1, with the pharma industry generating 48.55 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per $1 million revenue2, an emission intensity 55% higher3 than that of the much scrutinised automotive sector. As the world population increases and ages, demand for medicine will increase exponentially, and so will the pharma sector’s GHG emissions, which indeed are expected to triple by 2050 if no actions are taken4.

Notably, GHG emissions resulting from R&D, supply chains, transport, and logistics, are not the only contributor to pharma companies’ environmental pollution. Raw materials, solvents and huge volumes of water utilised during the manufacturing process, high energy consumption, wastewater, plastic packages, and unused expired medicines are also important contributors. It has been estimated that ~30,000 tonnes of biopharma single-use products end up in landfills every year.5

Given the widespread environmental footprint, continuing to raise awareness, and paying more attention to sustainable practices in the pharma industry will be crucial, and, over the next couple of months, our upcoming content series will explore a few of the areas where actions can be taken to become more sustainable.

Sustainability commitments

The pharma sector is not only part of the problem, but also part of the solution, and, in line with its core vision of helping people live longer and healthier lives, it must play its part in reducing GHG emissions and implement sustainable practices.

Hence, it’s no surprise that many pharma companies have started to set environmental goals for the next 5-10 years, with big pharma setting the benchmark for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME). For example, AstraZeneca and Novartis have opted for ambitious targets, such as zero GHG emissions across global operations by 20266 and carbon neutrality across supply chain by 20307, respectively. On the other hand, Amgen is aiming to achieve scope 1 and 2 emission neutralisation by 20278, while Novo Nordisk strives for ‘zero environmental impact by embedding circular economy’ in its business9.

Actions taken to reduce environmental footprint

Multiple the areas where actions are taken to reduce emissions and achieve such goals.

For example, to minimise GHG associated with hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) propellants currently used in pressurised metered dose inhalers (pMDIs), which in England alone result in almost 1 million tonnes CO2 equivalent per year10, AstraZeneca in collaboration with Honeywell, is investigating in early-stage clinical trials the new hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) propellant Solstice® Air, which has near-zero global warming potential (GWP).11

To promote a circular economy and reduce its carbon footprint, Ypsomed has developed a fully carbon neutral pre-filled autoinjector, by using bioplastics made from feedstocks for parts manufacture and recycled plastics as packaging material, and by investing in a reforestation programme in Kenya to offset remaining emissions.12

To reduce the amount of plastic waste associated with the 600 million plus pen devices they produce worldwide every year, NovoNordisk is piloting the PenCycle programme, to give a second life to pre-filled used insulin pens, by turning them into office chairs and lamps.13

Switching to renewable energy sources (e.g., on-site solar panels, hydroelectric energy), exploring green chemistry, turning to electric vehicle sales fleets, and replacing paper documents with electronic sheets are some of the other strategies explored or implemented to reduce a company’s carbon footprint.

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) sustainability

However, all these initiatives alone won’t be enough to achieve the goals, and pharma companies will also need their vendors/suppliers to understand their contribution to the process and commit to greener practices. Indeed, scope 3 emissions (i.e., emissions originating from suppliers, distributors and manufacturers) account for more than 80% of pharma companies’ environmental footprint14, and measuring and reducing scope 3 emissions up/down the supply chain will be crucial.

With this regard, some companies such as GSK, Novartis and AstraZeneca have started to require suppliers to make sustainability commitments and track improvements.15-17 Moreover, ten large pharma companies (including GSK and AstraZeneca) are collaborating in the Energize program which aims at educating suppliers on the science-based targets for sustainability.18

Environmental issues, however, are not the only issues pharma companies need to address to become more sustainable; social and governance issues are also crucial.

Providing access to affordable medicines and treatments, and ensuring equity, diversity, compliance, and transparency are just some of the other ways the industry can enhance sustainability.

A well-defined strategy, not just targets, is key

Pharma companies are then under increasing pressure to take action on the full spectrum of ESG issues, and those who are proactive in forming strategies and implementing measures now will be better placed to succeed in the future.

Addressing all three pillars of ESG sustainability would not only benefit the environment but also enhance value, reducing future costs and mitigating risks; moreover, it will also grant companies patients’, healthcare professionals’ (HCPs), regulators’ and investors’ trust.

Hence, incentivised by governments, payers, and regulators, as well as demands from patients, HCPs and employees who are becoming more and more aware of their individual footprints, pharma companies have set out bold targets for sustainability, with big pharma setting the bar for medium-size and small pharma companies.

However, given the complexity of the industry supply chain, it’s clear that pharma companies will need a comprehensive and well-defined strategy to deliver on their commitments, with multidisciplinary expertise, standardised life cycle assessments, key performance indicators (KPIs) tracking, transparency, and coordination, being key to its implementation. Nevertheless, despite bold targets, a well-defined strategy has not been mutually standardised nor transparently communicated across the spectrum of pharma players, making this an intricate topic to unravel

In the upcoming series of blogs, we will explore in more detail some of the themes covered above, such as ESG in the pharma sector, the shift to eco-friendlier medical devices, and the importance of partnering with sustainable suppliers.



  1. Health Care’s Climate Footprint, Arup, September 2019.
  2. Belkhir and Elmeligi, Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players; March 2019.
  3. Why pharma should be focusing on ESG; Datwyler Report; 2022.
  4. World Economic Forum article; November 2022.
  5. Ottinger M. et al. Single-Use Technology in the Biopharmaceutical Industry and Sustainability: A Contradiction? Chemie Ingenieur Technik; October 2022.
  6. AstraZenca Ambition Zero Carbon 
  7. Novartis Environmental Sustainability
  8. Amgen Environmental Sustainability Plan
  9. Novo Nordisk environmental policy
  10. The environmental impact of inhalers.
  11. AstraZeneca press release, February 2022
  12. Ypsomed’s two-step approach to achieving net zero; Article November 2022.
  13. Can you recycle an insulin pen?
  14. Setting sights on suppliers: How biopharma is tackling the environment in its ESG commitments
  15. AstraZeneca Press Release February 2022.
  16. Novartis Environmental Sustainability Criteria for Suppliers.
  17. GS Press Release September 2022.
  18. Energize Programme


You can read more about Solici and Cambridge Healthcare Research’s commitment to sustainability here.


Words by Gaia Ferracci.

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