Environmental responsibility in biotech research


The biotech and pharma industry plays a crucial role in advancing medical and technical innovations but is a significant contributor to global climate change. 

This article looks at the environmental impact of biotech research as it currently stands, and some of the initiatives and practices being introduced to reduce the carbon footprint.

How carbon impact is measured

Climate change targets typically focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction. The terminology for these targets tends to be broad, for example, commitments to carbon neutrality, net zero, or a percentage reduction in GHG emissions over a certain period. 

The GHG Protocol Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard classifies carbon emissions into three different scopes: 

Scope 1 = direct emissions from owned or controlled sources

Scope 2 = indirect emissions from purchased energy consumed by the reporting company Scope 3 = all other indirect emissions upstream or downstream in the value chain

For most industries, biotech and pharma included, Scope 3 emissions are significantly larger than Scopes 1 and 2 combined. 

The situation today

The global biotech and pharma market continues to grow. It was estimated at USD $1 trillion in 2021 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.9%, reaching $3.9 trillion by 2030. 

However, in parallel, the total carbon impact of the biotech and pharma industry has continued to increase annually, growing from 3.9% in 2021 to 5% in 2022. The millions of labs worldwide consume up to ten times the energy and four times the water of a typical office space. They also collectively produce an estimated 12 billion pounds of plastic waste each year, representing 2% of global plastic waste. 

The healthcare industry has an even larger footprint, equivalent to two gigatons of carbon dioxide, and representing 4.4% of total global emissions. 71% of these emissions were derived from the healthcare supply chain, including the biotech and pharma industry, which highlights the importance of carbon reductions for this specific sector. The Sustainable Healthcare Coalition estimates the total carbon emissions of clinical research alone are 100 million tCO2e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent).

Given the carbon intensity and rapid growth of the industry, it is critical and timely to examine the industry’s carbon profile as well as key opportunities to improve it. The Carbon Impact of Biotech & Pharma: Progress to the UN Race to Zero report quantifies Scope 1 and 2, as well as Scope 3 emissions across the industry’s entire value chain, tracking the industry’s progress since 2015, and evaluating alignment with achieving the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Climate Agreement, which states that in order to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C, carbon emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

The report leverages data from 231 publicly listed companies and 151 privately held companies and compares that profile to other industry sectors. The total carbon impact of public companies in the industry sector has increased by 15% to 227 million tCO2e or metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Adding in private companies increases the total by another 15%, with the total carbon impact of the industry reaching 260 million tCO2e.

Progress is being made. The largest biotech and pharma companies by revenue are committing to zero carbon goals and joining the UN-backed Race to Zero, with 46% of the sector by revenue now involved, up from 31% at this time last year, and progress towards 2030 Breakthroughs, a key measure of progress towards a zero carbon future, has also been rapid. 

However, despite established zero carbon goals and work to reduce Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, 91% of public companies in the sector still don’t have even short-term targets in place.

Looking to the future

The biotech and pharma industry has the potential to become a global leader in addressing climate change, starting with its own footprint, and then uniting to drive sustainability within its value chain, inspiring other industries to follow. 

Companies in this sector tend to be mission-focused and ambitious, with a culture of innovation. Through collective action, the largest companies could effectively drive Scope 3 reductions through supplier standards, renewable energy purchasing, Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) manufacturing, and green labs. 

My Green Lab certification

My Green Lab is recognized by the United Nations Race to Zero campaign as a key measure of progress towards a zero-carbon future, and it’s considered the gold standard for laboratory sustainability best practices around the world. 

My Green Lab provides a roadmap of practical, actionable opportunities for scientists and their suppliers to make meaningful changes, preserve resources, and reduce the environmental impact of labs. 

The program covers 14 topics including energy, water, waste, chemistry, materials, and engagement, and it focuses on reducing emissions for Scope 1 and 2 by making lab operations more sustainable and further helps catalyze Scope 3 reductions by encouraging sustainable purchasing with labs that a company contracts within its supply chain. 

My Green Lab has already worked with over 2,000 labs, and it has been selected as a Race to Zero Breakthrough Outcome – by 2030, the goal is that 95% of labs across major pharma and med tech companies are My Green Lab certified to the highest level.

But, while encouraging progress is being made, James Connelly, My Green Lab CEO, has been quoted as saying, “We need to rapidly scale up our efforts if the biotech and pharma industry is going to be part of the climate solution.”

Browser Update Required

This website does not support your current version of Internet Explorer, Please download the recent version from one of the links provided.

Update to Google Chrome Update to Internet Edge