The Environmental Impact of Pharma


Published 08th June 2022


The dangers of environmental changes are impossible to ignore, and essential climate goals set by international organisations consistently fail to be met. Blame is placed on governments, individuals, the oil and gas industries, and on the actions of individuals. We fail to recycle, buy too many single use items, and drive rather than use public transport. It is rare that fingers are pointed at the health & pharmaceutical industries; this is an oversight.

The climate crisis is not a secret, we are all aware of it, we are all aware of the importance of addressing it. It is critical that efforts to achieve the ‘1.5 degrees pledge’ are not only made but are successful.[1]

What is the impact of pharma on the environment?

The total carbon footprint of the NHS, public health and social care system represents 38% of public sector emissions in England — Pharmaceuticals accounted for 16.25% of this making it the largest contributor.[2]  In 2007 health care represented 8% of greenhouse gas emissions and 7% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. By 2016 it was calculated that the share of greenhouse gas emitted by Pharma rose to 10% (as well as 12% of acid rain and 10% of smog formation).[3]

Globally, the pharma industry produces more CO2 that the automotive industry.

Active pharmaceutical ingredients are frequently disposed of into water systems damaging the environment and biota. Calculations of concentrations and potency of these ingredients has proved difficult to calculate as they may vary considerable over time and location. This difficulty represents a challenge for holding the industry to account and monitoring impact.

Drug manufacturers in Patancheru, India released 44kg of broad-spectrum antibiotics into the environment each day.[4]

The environmental degradation caused by water pollution is not the only issue. A significant amount of active pharmaceutical products are produced in middle-income countries where water infrastructure is generally less advanced. This increases the likelihood of risk to health, representing a moral issue.

However, this is not to say that there is industry wide inertia on this issue: technological discoveries and commitments to cut or eliminate carbon output are driving some within pharma towards a more sustainable future. Global health and environmental protection are entwined, but their solutions often seem at odds — will pharma be able to resolve this dilemma?


[1] Global temperatures must not rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times.

[2] Belkhir, L., Elmeligi, A. (2019) ‘Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players’, Journal of Cleaner Production, 185-194.

[3] Eckelman, M.J., Sherman, J. (2016) ‘Environmental impacts of the U.S. Health care system and effects on public health’, PLoS One.

[4] Larsson, Joakim. (2014) ‘Pollution from drug manufacturing: Review and perspectives’, Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences.