The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) unveiled a hydrogen-powered zero emission ambulance this week at Glasgow’s COP26 climate change conference. The vehicle will help the NHS reduce its contribution to UK road emissions and improve air quality and therefore health – thus making health workers’ jobs a little easier to boot.

The Greener NHS program focuses on how the NHS can reduce emissions with a goal of 80% reduction by 2028-2032 and net zero emissions by 2040. The climate emergency is a major threat to health, so the NHS wants to reduce the health impacts from polluting human activity that leads to climate change. The NHS is responsible for 5.4% of UK emissions (including hospitals, etc.), so it can make a big impact on its own.

NHS transport alone accounts for about 3.5% of all UK road traffic, and the NHS estimates that shifting their ambulances to electric will reduce emissions by 87,000 tons of CO2 per year, or the equivalent of 730,000 car journeys from Cornwall to Glasgow (an eight-hour, 530-mile trip).

The new NHS ambulances use hydrogen instead of batteries as their energy source. NHS says this will make the ambulance more suitable for locations that need to make longer journeys, such as rural areas. The ambulance’s hydrogen tanks will be able to carry these vehicles around 300 miles before refueling – more than enough for a typical ambulance shift.

Hydrogen Vehicle Systems, a Scotland-based company that won a UK grant to develop hydrogen ambulances, says that hydrogen is better suited for ambulances because the capability to refuel rapidly for back-to-back shifts is important for emergency response vehicles.

COP26 attendees, including NHS Chief Sustainability Officer Nick Watts, pose with the ambulance. Electrek could not confirm the 1,200 number.

Last October, the West Midlands Ambulance Service adopted the UK’s first fully electric ambulance, a battery-electric vehicle with a 96kWh battery pack good for up to 110 miles of range and a four-hour recharge time – with future developments planned to improve those numbers. That vehicle has now been in use for more than a year, transferring patients smoothly and quietly across Birmingham.

Quiet and smooth operation are significant benefits for ambulances, providing comfort for fragile patients and first responders on long, stressful shifts. The lack of exhaust is another benefit – nobody wants to breathe in more pollution while they’re already dealing with other health complications, and it will be nice not to have idling ambulance exhaust drifting through the front doors of casualty, stinking up the place.

These local air quality improvements will also make a difference nationally. Air pollution contributes to one out of every 20 deaths in the UK, so cleaning up the air is key to achieving better health outcomes – which is the NHS’ mandate.

UK overall emissions are around 360,000,000 tons of CO2 per year – down 30% by 2010, significant progress from this formerly coal-centric nation. The UK as a whole is planning to phase out new gas-powered vehicles by 2030, but the NHS wants to be a leader in this transition and shift its ambulance fleet over as early as possible. As mentioned, it thinks it’s feasible to convert the whole fleet – not just new ambulances, but all ambulances in service – to zero emissions by 2032.

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