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Sustainable Science and The Road to Net Zero

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In 2015, the United Nations Climate Change Conference 21 (COP21) led to the creation of The Paris Agreement, a treaty that outlined a worldwide commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. To achieve this goal, humanity must produce less carbon than it extracts from the Earth's atmosphere by the second half of this century, becoming "net zero".

The Paris Agreement came into force in 2016. Recently, world leaders united for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, UK to outline clear strategies for accelerating our road to net zero.

At COP26, the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted the COP26 Health Pavilion, which invited representatives from different regions, sectors and communities to discuss how climate change is influencing human health, and vice versa. My Green Lab, a non-profit organization with the mission of building a global culture of sustainability in science, was among the line-up.

My Green Lab was established in 2013 as a result of one neuroscientists' frustration at the environmental impact of scientific research. If you have ever found yourself in a laboratory, you're likely no stranger to the heavy reliance on single-use plastics and the volume of waste generated, the energy used for the continuous running of electronic machinery or the emissions attributable to laboratory reagent sourcing.

The carbon footprint of scientific research is large, but according to My Green Lab, it doesn't have to be. Over the last eight years, the organization has developed a number of different programs that have united leading scientists, research groups, vendors, designers and energy providers in a common goal: to make science more sustainable. This includes the My Green Lab Certification Program, which was selected as a key indicator of progress for the UNFCCC High Level Climate Champions’ 2030 Breakthroughs campaign.

At COP26, My Green Lab released a study that emphasized the carbon impact of the pharmaceutical and biotech industry specifically. The study results show that it is the 25th-largest carbon-emitting industry in world, with a total carbon output of 197 million tCO2-e. For context, the semiconductor industry output is 182 million tCO2-e, and the forestry and paper industry output is 170 million tCO2-e.

The health of society relies on continuous advancements and productivity from the pharma and biotech industry. There is arguably no greater example of this than the COVID-19 pandemic, during which we have seen the development and manufacturing of novel vaccines at a remarkable speed. How do we ensure that such innovation can occur without further jeopardizing the earth's climate? 

In this interview, Technology Networks spoke with My Green Lab's CEO James Connelly, to learn more about the key findings of the organization's 2021 report, the different scopes of carbon emissions and how My Green Lab is helping pharma and biotech strive to reach net zero.

Molly Campbell (MC): Can you talk about the inspiration behind My Green Lab and your role at the organization?

James Connelly (JC):
I'm actually an architect by training, but I’ve worked in sustainability across a number of industries over the past decade, from green buildings to green chemistry and corporate sustainability. My Green Lab was founded by an incredible neuroscientist, Allison Paradise, who was fed up with the environmental impact of research and realized that she wanted to do something about it. She wanted to start an organization that aimed to build a culture of sustainability in science. I got involved around four years ago, when I met Allison, she opened my eyes to the environmental impact of science and her passion and the need for change in the industry "sucked" me into the organization. I joined My Green Lab first as an advisor and started supporting the organization's growth strategy all over the world, and was taken in by both the community, the mission and the potential for change. A year and a half ago, Alison decided to step down and pursue some personal passions, and the board invited me to take on the CEO role and, in many ways, continue my previous role to scale-up the organization's impact all over the world. My Green Lab was started by a scientist that was excited about the need for change. My role is to help grow and develop the organization and make sure that we accomplish our mission on a global scale.

MC: Can you explain the different scopes of emissions, and how they can be measured?

Organizations report their carbon emissions through various categories, or “scopes". Scope one is the direct energy that you're burning on site, or the fuel that you're burning on site. This would be, for example, if you have a natural gas boiler. Scope two is all the electricity that you purchase, and the carbon impact from that electricity. Scope one and scope two are the things that you, as an organization, own and control and can influence. Scope three goes outside of that to look both at your upstream and your downstream impact along what is called an organization's "value chain". Scope three emissions could include the emissions of your suppliers and the goods that you buy, as well as the emissions from your customers from the consumption of the products you are selling. For example, all of the materials required to make a vaccine would be included in the upstream scope three emissions, and the energy necessary to store the vaccine and dispose of it at the end of life would be in your downstream scope three emissions. For most industries, scope three tends to be much larger than scope one and two combined. For biotech and pharma specifically, scope three is actually around five times larger than scope one and two combined. If you're an organization looking to reduce your carbon footprint, you can't just focus on the things that you own and control, you also have to work with your upstream supply chain as well as to partner with your customers to help them reduce their emissions as well.

MC: The biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry is the 25th-largest carbon-emitting industry in the world. What aspects of the lab/industry are contributing the most to this carbon production?

I was shocked to learn when I joined My Green Lab that biotech and pharma actually had 55% higher carbon emission intensity than the automotive industry – when measured by carbon emission for revenue – for scope one and scope two. In fact, total emissions for scope one, two and three for biotech and pharma were more than the semiconductor industry and forestry and paper, which are both traditionally seen as significant carbon emitters. And this study only looked at publicly trading companies; the total emissions from the industry are actually bigger than that, if you include private companies, public institutions, government labs, etc.

When you look into the carbon footprint of biotech and pharma, laboratories are a huge contributor. Typical research lab uses 10 times more energy than a typical office space, four times more water, and massive amounts of plastic and other hazardous waste. Targeting research labs is really a key factor in terms of driving down the carbon impact of biotech and pharma.

Pharmaceutical manufacturing also has a significant impact. If you think about it, manufacturing operations in this space are running 24/7, making them huge carbon emitters. Then you have to look into the scope three emissions, the supply chain for this sector. All of the materials etc., that a biotech and pharmaceutical company buys typically makes up around 50% of its scope three emissions. Shifting the supply chain of the materials that they buy, and encouraging their suppliers to be more sustainable, is a key part of reducing their overall emissions.

The rest of the emissions tend to come from purchase goods and services, meaning the use of products that those companies are selling, for example think about the storage and transportation of the COVID-19 vaccine. A huge part of some of the biggest biotech and pharma companies' footprint is actually the high global warming potential chemicals that are in inhalers. So, partnering with your customers to reduce the impact of the treatments that you're providing is critical as well.

MC: Can you discuss what the My Green Lab certification entails, and how the framework provides a roadmap for companies, scientists and suppliers to take positive action?

My Green Lab's certification process is a continuous improvement tool that can be used in any lab, whether it's an R&D lab or an industrial food testing lab. In fact, we have labs of many different kinds that pursue certification. The program functions through a survey, and we ask that over 50% of the people within the lab take the survey. Based upon those survey results, we can provide information about what they can be doing better and what additional best practices they should aim for. This ranges from simple low-hanging fruit tasks like turning off the lights and turning off equipment, to more complex things like changing their suppliers, or perhaps changing the set points of their freezers. For an example of the impact of the small changes, Ultra-low temperature freezers tend to be the highest energy consumers in a lab, and by simply changing their temperature from minus 80 to minus 70 can save 30% of the energy that those units are consuming.

Through this continuous improvement process, we educate and build awareness for scientists on what they can do. We also provide pathways that can be followed to make a difference and drive real reductions in the lab and make real environmental improvements. The program addresses 14 different topic areas, from energy, water, waste, to green chemistry and how to build an effective green lab team. This not only helps scientists improve their work – which we think is really important in research and is possibly why sustainability intervention sometimes don't work – but it also empowers them. They can take charge of being a part of their sustainability effort, which is a huge part of our mission which is to build a global culture of sustainability in science.

Rather than simply a checklist, we're really trying to create a cultural shift, so that individuals and the entire organization itself makes sustainability a core part of how they do business. More broadly, and we spoke about this at COP26, our program was selected by the United Nation's Race to Zero campaign as a breakthrough outcome. They not only asked that all participating companies become net zero by 2050 or earlier, but they also established key metrics that the industry needs to achieve on its journey to becoming net zero. My Green Lab is a key tool for that. It not only engages researchers at the lab bench about how they can make changes in line with their overall corporate sustainability goals, it also educates them on issues like procurement. It asks them to think carefully about how the purchasing decisions that they're making will impact their output, so that they can push their suppliers to be more sustainable, which fundamentally builds an ethos of sustainability within an organization.

MC: As we have seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, we rely on the biotech and pharma sector to respond quickly in a state of emergency. How can we support these research spaces/ industries to work both efficiently, but also in an environmentally conscious way?

It's important to be clear that we don't believe that we should slow down the pace of innovation or that we shouldn't be developing lifesaving and incredibly important treatments for the market, we absolutely should. The development of the COVID-19 vaccines show that this industry can address huge problems for the benefit society rapidly, which is incredibly important.

However, if we start with every scientist, which is our 10-year vision, and encourage them to understand sustainability and question how they can address sustainability in their work and their actions, it becomes embedded in both education and the institutional culture. When we face these needs to sprint and develop new medicines, for example, sustainability will already be baked into how an organization functions. This means we can make sure that we are developing the new medicine in the most efficient and sustainable manner possible.

It's incredibly important to look upstream in these processes, because once a procedure, a process or a treatment has been FDA approved, it's hard for companies to change it. We really need to be thinking about sustainability from the outset.

I think there's also some systemic structural changes that need to happen within the supply chain of biotech and pharma. Obviously, COVID-19 has seen a massive uptake in the use of single use plastics, and there is innovation that's necessary, both in how those plastics are created and how we are managing regulated medical waste so that it's not simply autoclaved in landfills, but so that it actually comes back into a circular lifecycle. We're working with a number of individuals and groups that are really pioneering new ways to approach that single use plastics economy.

We need the industry to continue to advance, but we believe that, fundamentally, if we can change people's mindset at the outset and build sustainability into the culture of individuals and organizations, we can get the same level of innovation at a much lower and reduced environmental impact.

MC: You recently presented at COP26. Can you share some of the insights you gained from this experience in terms of general attitudes towards sustainability in the context of pharma and biotech?

I heard from a number of people that sustainability hadn't been on the top agenda for healthcare or biotech and pharma. The idea was, if you're doing important work, it needs to have priority over your environmental impact. This year at COP we saw a change.

Race to Zero achieved a breakthrough ambition where over 30% of major pharma and medtech companies committed to the campaign, meaning they will be zero net carbon by 2050 or sooner. Organizations like the NHS in the UK committed to being net zero and actually asked their suppliers, which, for the large part includes biotech and pharma, to join them on that effort. There has been a bit of an awakening in the industry, and a dramatic step up.

However, in the short term, the industry is not well aligned with a 1.5 °C world by 2030. Only four percent of the companies that we studied had 2030 targets that were aligned with 1.5 °C temperature rise or less. More ambitious targets need to be made, even if the biggest companies are starting to shift and healthcare industry is starting to shift. That really needs to start happening now. That's why tools and frameworks that provide industry-wide third-party verification are so important.

MC: My Green Lab has supported over 700 labs worldwide, engaging over 5,000 scientists from 30 different countries. Can you discuss any particular case studies where you feel that lab groups and scientists have really engaged with My Green Lab to make a difference?

: I will share two examples, one from one from biotech and pharma and one from university research. AstraZeneca has truly been a leader – it was not only one of the first organizations to set sustainability targets, but it also backed that talk up with action by committing to all of its global R&D projects meeting My Green Lab certification.

The outcomes have been incredibly positive. Not only is it reducing waste, saving water, reducing carbon, it's getting the whole team engaged in achieving its long-term corporate sustainability goals. Setting long-term sustainability goals of the company has actually shown to increase an employee's engagement in their work. Not only is the company saving money and energy, but it's also creating a more positive culture where employee's work is clearly aligned with the company's overall objectives.

The other example is Johns Hopkins University. The institute started a small My Green Lab pilot with just a few labs, and had students very much involved in driving forward its sustainability initiative. In 2021, it created a whole sustainability role, the green lab program manager, which was really driven – in many ways – by interested scientists that wanted to do something about sustainability. Now there is actual funding available to support a full-time position, and we love seeing that, it's really exciting.

MC: Can you talk about the direction of My Green Lab's efforts moving forward?

We know that science has a huge environmental impact, and while we're doing great work working with over 700 labs to truly make a difference on global climate, we need to continue the pace. Specifically, we need to ensure the industry keeps below the Paris Agreement targets and supports carbon reductions that that keep temperature rise below 1.5 °C. We simply have to move much, much faster. Rather than thinking about certifying a few more labs next year, we are thinking about how we can really up our game to we achieve our long term goal by 2030, which is 95% of labs achieving My Green Lab certification a the highest level. How do we ensure that every scientist understands sustainability and how they can make a difference in their research and actions?

In this industry, we understand the science of climate change and we follow the science. That is why we think the industry needs to move quickly from a laggard to a leader. This industry, more than almost any other, has the financial resources, the innovation culture to make a change. And, as COVID-19 has shown, we have the experience in making significant investments in solving difficult problems for the benefit of humanity long term.

We think science can and must lead the world on sustainability and particularly on addressing climate change. By leading, we believe that the industry can actually be a model for the rest of the world to follow. We're excited and engaged in pushing this vision forward and urge everyone across the industry to join us is in our mission to build a global culture of sustainability in science.

James Connelly was speaking to Molly Campbell, Science Writer for Technology Networks.

My Green Lab resources:

Carbon Impact Report

My Green Lab Strategic Plan (2021-2023)

My Green Lab Certification Program

My Green Lab Certification case studies