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Putting the climate effects of anaesthetic gases into perspective | Letters


We note with interest your correspondence on the climate effects of anaesthetic gases (Letters, 26 October). However, as a climate scientist and an anaesthetist we feel compelled to put this into perspective.

Today, climate change is happening because the Earth is experiencing a change in its radiative forcing – in this case from increasing accumulations of, principally, carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Anaesthetic gases are indeed greenhouse gases, but the radiative forcing that they exert on the planet is vanishingly small compared with CO2 (0.00021Wm-2 versus 1.68Wm-2).

It is tempting to express the climate effects of anaesthetic gases in terms of equivalent emissions of CO2. However, this misses two critical steps – the translation of emissions into radiative forcing, and the translation of radiative forcing into an impact on our climate. Both steps are immensely complex. Even for an abundant, well-mixed and long-lived gas like CO2 we are still not certain how sensitive our global and regional climate will be. For anaesthetic gases, any impact of its tiny emissions and radiative forcing on our climate system will, quite frankly, be “lost in translation”.

As we seek to deal with climate change, it is important to take a holistic view of our decisions and their implications. In the case of anaesthetic gases, there seem to be three conditions that should be met before a change in practice: (1) Are there clinical benefits to the patient? (2) Are there economic benefits to the NHS, (3) Are there wider environmental benefits – for example, is there a reduction in non-recyclable/non-biodegradable waste and no increase in hidden carbon emissions from the manufacture of alternative practices? On the other hand, invoking climate change as a reason for abandoning the use of anaesthetic gases does not hold up scientifically.
Dame Julia Slingo
Former Met Office chief scientist
Dr Mary Slingo
Senior registrar in anaesthetics, Southampton general hospital

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