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Despite Progress, Carbon Emissions Rise in the Lab Industry

New report from My Green Lab outlines issues left to tackle with carbon reduction in the biotech and pharma industries

Scott Wallask

Scott Wallask is senior editorial manager for Today’s Clinical Lab and G2 Intelligence. He has spent more than 25 years covering the health care and high tech industries. A former...

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In updating its findings from 2021 about the carbon footprint produced by the biotech and pharmaceutical industry—including laboratories—My Green Lab has concluded that the total carbon impact from this sector increased from 3.9 percent in 2021 to five percent in 2022.

The nonprofit environmental group’s chief executive officer expressed surprise, and perhaps disappointment, with those numbers.

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“We had hoped that we were turning the tide on [carbon impact] a little bit more, but the data doesn't lie,” says James Connelly, My Green Lab’s CEO, in an exclusive interview with Lab Manager.

Laboratory managers that support green lab initiatives may find cause for alarm in Connelly’s assessment, given that climate control proponents are urging for less emission of carbon in day-to-day operations. The report notes three factors that may have contributed to increased carbon impact:

  • The biotech and pharma industry continues to grow each year. For example, the biotech market was valued at $1 trillion in 2021 but may expand to $3.9 trillion by 2030, the report notes, referencing analysis by Grandview Research.
  • Biotech and pharma firms are outsourcing more manufacturing and research activities to carbon intensive regions of the world.
  • The methodology to determine carbon impact was updated, although year-to-year comparisons were done using the revised techniques.

However, the report’s findings were not all bad news: As of the report’s release, 54 percent of the largest companies by revenue in pharma and medical technology have committed to the United Nation’s Race to Zero campaign, up from 46 percent last year.

Race to Zero aims to halve total carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050, according to the UN.

Origin of carbon emissions ranked by scope

My Green Lab’s 26-page report, “The Carbon Impact of Biotech and Pharma: Collective Action Accelerating Progress to the UN Race to Zero,” was released December 5, 2023. The report’s findings are based on data from Intercontinental Exchange, which analyzes environmental markets. The study looks back at prior results from 2021 while also staking ground on what My Green Lab describes as a race to avoid the “devastating impacts of global climate change.”

The report dissects the results of so-called Scope 1, 2, and 3 carbon emissions from hundreds of public and private companies in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, including laboratories. Scope designations refer to the following:

  • Scope 1—Emissions coming directly from lab and biotech operations.
  • Scope 2—Emissions resulting from purchased energy by labs and biotech companies.
  • Scope 3—Emissions occurring upstream or downstream from a company’s operations.

Overall, Scope 3 emissions are 4.6 times greater than Scope 1 and 2 combined in the biotech and pharma sector, the report concluded. However, the data indicated a blurry line among scope designations by global region. “North American and European based companies tend to have much lower carbon intensities for Scope 1 and 2 … than their Asia-Pacific counterparts,” according to the study.

Connelly emphasizes the regional differences: “One thing that was very interesting in the data was the carbon impact of companies based in Asia Pacific tend to be about twice as high for Scope 1 and 2 compared to companies based in Europe or North America,” he says. “The majority of American and European biotech and pharma companies’ carbon footprint is actually the offshore contract research, contract manufacturing, etc. That's within their supply chain.”

So, Scope 1 and 2 emissions in Asia Pacific in turn become Scope 3 supply chain concerns for Western-based labs. Additionally, manufacturers in Asia Pacific tend to have more carbon-intensive energy grids, particularly in China and India, the report stated.

Labs can wield their ‘purchasing power’

Lab managers that want to make a dent in Scope 3 emissions need to look up and down their supply chain for opportunities to flex their purchasing muscles, says Noah Kittner, PhD, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kittner had not seen My Green Lab’s report before it was published but is familiar with carbon emission reduction strategies.

“It's related to the purchasing decisions that labs make,” Kittner said. “They order a lot of equipment regularly. And I think the concern there is that they're not doing enough by demanding—with their purchasing power—a more carbon-friendly type of paper material [for example].”

This notion may not be obvious to some laboratory managers who naturally will look only within their own organization to reduce carbon emissions.

“There's a lot of focus on the direct emission reductions, like at a medical facility, but maybe not as much on what [managers] can do related to the types of suppliers that labs negotiate with,” Kittner adds. “If labs have a big contract, they could choose one company over another company, and maybe the company that provides certain equipment might have a lower carbon footprint. If that were factored into the decisions, then I think the idea is labs could reduce the Scope 3 emissions more dramatically.”

From Connelly’s perspective, it is critical that employees of a lab get personally involved with sustainability efforts so that these initiatives resonate throughout an organization. “So many companies have big goals, they do power purchase agreements, but the employees working in the lab at the bench don't know what they can do,” he says. “The lab is … the heart of the industry. And if we can change people's minds and we can get them thinking about how to incorporate sustainability, we can influence things downstream.”

Slight temperature rise could have outsized effects

Another key finding from the report concludes that while the largest biotech and lab companies by revenue have established zero carbon goals and continue to reduce emissions, 90 percent of 91 public companies analyzed in the sector still do not have climate commitments aligned with a concept known as the “1.5 degrees Celsius world.”

That phrase derives from a theory developed by climate change scientists, according to an article in MIT News.

“To prevent worsening and potentially irreversible effects of climate change, the world’s average temperature should not exceed that of preindustrial times by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit),” MIT News reported.

That range may not seem like a lot in terms of temperature, as most people would not even physically notice that type of shift on a given day. However, Kittner says there are significant ramifications associated with such temperature change for certain areas of the world, such as regions affected by extreme heat.

“Even a few extra degrees over the long term can make a big difference in places where temperatures are already at 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more,” he adds. “That's causing a lot of risks, especially for elderly people and others.”

My Green Lab’s findings provide an opportunity for sustainability-minded lab leaders to review carbon emission activities. Across the biotech and pharma industry, carbon impact has risen and some of that increase can be attributed to Scope 3 emissions tied to a lab’s supply chain agreements. Aside from auditing internal carbon emissions, labs should also explore how supply chain partners are handling their carbon footprints.