Lessons from COP26: The role of the pharmaceutical industry in addressing climate change
The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow has concluded and while some progress has been made on key environmental issues, tackling the climate crisis remains a daunting challenge. By the end of COP26, 151 countries submitted climate plans to cut their emissions by 2030 and ongoing discussions between selected countries will seek to achieve certain targets sooner than 2030.
Among the largest emitors of CO2 are the power, transport, agriculture and steel industries. These industries must radically transform themselves to reduce their emissions and strive for net-zero where possible. While the main spotlight is focused on the aforementioned industries, what are the environmental challenges for the pharmaceutical industry and how should the lessons of COP26 be addressed?
Glaxosmithkline was one of the principal partners of COP26 and it is clear that the industry is aware it must play a role in reducing overall emissions. Most large pharmaceutical companies report their emissions annually and have comprehensive sustainability and environmental goals.
The Pharma Industry’s Environmental Challenge
One study which sought to quantify the emissions of the pharmaceutical industry was a 2019 comparative analysis study authored by Belkhir and Elmiligi which was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production . This study assessed emissions from the top 15 pharmaceutical companies (using 2015 data) and concluded the pharmaceutical industry’s emissions intensity was 48.55 tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per million dollars which was approximately 55 per cent greater than the automotive sector at 31.4 tonnes of CO2e/$M for that same year. It is worth noting that this study’s assessment is contrary to the industry’s own analysis that it is a ‘medium-impact sector’. Doubtless, the debate will continue for sometime.
The pharmaceutical industry’s environmental footprint is extremely complex even beyond the emissions associated with the discovery, trial and manufacturing of drugs. When transport, logistics, water use, packaging and drug disposals are included, you begin to understand the environmental challenge that the industry faces. Nevertheless, the layers of complexity should, and can be addressed.
ValitaCell’s environmental agenda
At ValitaCell, leveraging the power of data and creating advanced analytics technologies for our biopharmaceutical clients is at the heart of our business. But what role can a ‘small’ but growing business like ours play in helping to address the environmental challenges of the industry?
Like many of our peers in the industry, ValitaCell will need to focus on certain areas of our operations and business model in order to reduce our environmental impact.
ValitaCell was established in 2014 and as with most start-ups, the immediate and pressing priority was on establishing processes and on identifying and winning new customers. While we are still very much in growth mode and moving quickly, there is (slightly!) more time to reflect on important issues such as our environmental impact.
Sustainability opportunities for ValitaCell
To reduce our environmental impact, the following areas of our operations can be examined:
1. Packaging: We ship our products worldwide. Outer packaging is recyclable cardboard but each of our assay plates (e.g. Valita®Titer) are single-use plastic which, when used by the laboratory, are disposed of. Can recycled plastic be sourced to produce the assay plates? This is a conversation that we will need to have with our supplier.
2. Shipments: Our Quantum portfolio of products has an extended shelf life of 12 months. We work closely with our customers on improving forecast accuracy with the goal to balance stock in warehouse with speed to market. This collaboration helps reduce shipment frequency and overall emissions.
3. Energy & water: ValitaCell’s HQ is based in the National Institute of Bioprocessing (NIBRT) in Ireland. We are fortunate that this modern, world-class facility is also focusing on its sustainability agenda and in 2020 has reduced water usage by 27%, gas by 15% and electricity by 20%.
4. Products & Technologies: ValitaCell’s mission is to accelerate the pace and reduce the manufacturing cost of innovative medicines. Our focus on speed and eliminating or compressing workflow steps has positive environmental benefits.
For example, our IgG assay – ValitaTiter – requires no additional reagents and provides results in <10 minutes. This rapid turnaround thereby reduces energy use in the lab. In addition, one of our newest technologies is CellAi which is label-free, image analysis software that is powered by AI. CellAi eliminates physical cell staining, the use of toxic stains and is non-destructive. This technology is more reproducible and accurate and offers the opportunity for multiple data points from a single sample. These technologies illustrate a low environmental impact. However, it would be disingenuous for us to suggest that ‘sustainability’ was the priority focus for us when developing these technologies. Rather, the priority was on creating the most innovative technologies to solve our client’s needs. As our business evolves and matures, we must continue to focus on solving our clients needs and delivering on our mission. Now however, we must ensure that we ask ourselves, “How can we create a more sustainable technology with a lower environmental impact?” The answers may not always be easy, but we must nevertheless look for solutions.
World leaders and decision makers will debate and aim to improve on the already challenging goals that have emerged from COP26 and we all hope that decisive and rapid actions will be taken. It is clear that no company or individual can wait for ‘someone else’ to make the hard decisions or take the difficult steps. Each of us has a role to play to solve the climate crisis and ValitaCell is ready and willing to play our part.