Practising planetary health care in BC

(Published as “Practising planetary health care in B.C. starts with hospital food waste)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

22 November 2021

701 words

It comes as a surprise to many people, including health care professionals, that the health care system has a large ecological footprint. But as I noted last week, if the global health care system were a country, then its carbon emissions would have made it the fifth-largest emitter on the planet, according to a 2019 report from Health Care Without Harm. 

But climate change caused by the health sector’s emissions results not only in environmental harm, but in harm to human health. And that is a direct contravention of one of the fundamental priciples of medicine, enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath, to do no harm; hence the need for health care without harm.

Of course, climate change is not the only environmental and health harm that the health care system creates. For example the Green Hospital Scorecard, a program of the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care (founded 20 years ago), is used by hospitals to assess their policies and actions on energy and water use, pollution prevention and waste management, transportation, healthy food systems and climate change, as well as corporate leadership.

So now that Canada has signed on at COP26 to the global commitment to create sustainable low-carbon health care systems, we have to look to the provinces, who actually run the health care system, to step up and take action across this wide range of issues.

Here in B.C. some steps are already underway. The province’s July 2021 Mandate Letters to the health authorities makes fighting climate change one of five foundational principles that will inform their policies and programs. In particular, they are expected to reduce their building emissions by 50 percent and their fleet emissions by 40 percent by 2030, as part of the CleanBC Plan. But B.C. will need to go much further to identify and tackle the full range of environmentally responsible health care practices that are needed.

So I was delighted to learn recently that UBC has established a Planetary Healthcare Lab led by Dr. Andrea MacNeill, a cancer surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital who is passionately committed to reducing health care’s environmental and health impacts. She also holds the newly established position of Medical Director of Planetary Health for Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH). The Lab is an interdisciplinary research collaborative dedicated to creating health systems that promote both human and planetary health.

In an April press release, UBC noted the Lab “will tackle everything from hospital food-related pollution and unnecessary patient testing and treatment through to emissions stemming from the medical supply chain.” Over time, the Lab states, this will involve “embedding planetary healthcare in health system structures (e.g. hospital accreditation, quality reporting, supply chain)”, so it becomes just part of everyday practice.

One key area the Lab will be looking at is the health system’s food services, which account for a large part of the sector’s footprint and generate a lot of food waste, as is the case at the household level. A more ecologically sustainable diet will also have significant direct health benefits for patients and staff. Another area is the supply chain, which accounts for around 80 percent of health care’s carbon emissions. Requiring a ‘circular economy’ approach be adopted throughout the supply chain could thus substantially reduce the consumption and depletion of natural resources, as well as reducing emissions, waste and pollution. The Lab will also examine the environmental and health benefits of  ‘virtual care’, which already saves millions of kilometres of patient travel each year.

The new Planetary Health initiative at VCH is complemented by the work of VCH’s Energy and Environmental Sustainability team, which among other things works on active & clean transportation and minimizing energy and water consumption, carbon emissions, waste generation and toxic chemicals use. Then there is GreenCare, which unites efforts across the four Lower Mainland health organizations (VCH, Fraser Health, Providence Health and the Provincial Health Services Authority). Their 2020 Environmental Performance Dashboard highlights significant reductions in the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and waste generation across the four health authorities.

It’s a good start, now we need this to become provincial in scope, with Planetary Health Offices at the provincial level as well as in all the health authorities.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Practising health care as if the planet matters

17 November 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

Last week I reported on the rally at the BC Legislature organised by Doctors for Planetary Health – West Coast. The rally was timed to coincide with the COP26, the UN’s climate change conference in Glasgow, where for the first time – and at the behest of the UK government – health was one of three science priority areas.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was at the centre of this work, offering an extensive set of events and initiatives. This included the release of an open letter signed by 600 organizations representing 46 million health professionals that identified the climate crisis as the single biggest health threat humanity faces; a Global Conference on Health and Climate Change; and the release of a WHO report on the health argument for climate action.

This report recognised, in the words of Dr. Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO, that in the face of climate change “protecting health requires action well beyond the health sector, in energy, transport, nature, food systems, finance and more.” But it also requires action by the health sector itself, which is a significant contributor to climate change, and more broadly to ecological harm.

When it comes to climate change, Health Care Without Harm – the leading international organisation focused on making health care ecologically sustainable, and a co-lead with WHO on its global initiative, estimated in a 2019 report that “Health care’s climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4% of global net emissions” of greenhouse gases. If it were a country, the report noted, the health sector “would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet.”

Canada’s health care system, noted the 2019 Lancet Countdown report for Canada, has the third highest greenhouse gas emissions per person in the world, compared to 47 other countries where data was available. It also emits large amounts of other air and water pollutants, consumes considerable quantities of materials (especially because of its widespread use of disposables) and as a result generates large volumes of waste, including toxic waste. But those are just the direct emissions.

When we consider that healthcare is one of the largest economic sectors in Canada (almost 13 percent of GDP, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information), employs around the same proportion of the labour force and generates millions of kilometres of travel by staff, patients and suppliers, it is clear the system’s impact is even larger.

So it is exciting to hear that the WHO announced that the governments of 50 countries had signed on to a commitment to develop climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems. Despite missing the original deadline, Canada did indeed sign on before the end of COP26, after being pressured by Canadian planetary health advocates in Glasgow and their colleagues across Canada. Thus Canada has agreed to conduct climate change and health vulnerability assessments and to develop national adaptation plans for health.

It has also agreed to develop an action plan or roadmap to achieve sustainable, low carbon health systems. Regretttably, however, Canada did not join 14 other countries, including Belgium, Spain and the UK, in committing to creating a net-zero emissions health care system.

The UK provides a useful example. In early 2020 the CEO of the National Health Service (NHS) commissioned a plan for the system to become “the world’s first ‘net zero’ national health service”, a plan they stuck to in spite of Covid. Launched in October 2020, the plan has two clear targets: For the emissions the NHS controls directly, achieve net zero by 2040, and for the emissions the system can influence, achieve net zero by 2045.

The latter emissions include “Indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy, mostly electricity . . . and  . . . all other indirect emissions that occur in producing and transporting goods and services, including the full supply chain.” Achieving this by 2045 is ambitious.

Canada’s failure to sign on to a net-zero target is perhaps understandable. After all, health care is a provincial responsibility and not under federal control. So now we have to get our provincial governments to develop climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems and to achieve net-zero health care systems.

That will be the focus of next week’s column.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Doctors and nurses declare a climate and ecological ‘Code Red’ for BC

9 November 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

In 1848, Dr. Rudolf Virchow presented his report to the Prussian government on the steps needed to address a typhus outbreak in Upper Silesia – an impoverished, largely Polish-speaking coal-mining area. To the surprise and consternation of the government, he called for a variety of social and economic reforms, including democratic self-government, making Polish an official language, separation of church and state, and the creation of grassroots agricultural cooperatives.

‘But Dr Virchow’, they said, ‘this is not a medical report, it’s a political report!’. To which he famously replied, “Gentlemen, medicine is a social science, and politics nothing else but medicine writ large.” His statement has been an inspirational force for public health action ever since, providing the rationale for the focus public health so often has on the hugely important health impacts of public policy beyond the health sector.

173 years later, Virchow’s spirit is alive and well and was on display at the BC Legislature on November 4th. Doctors for Planetary Health – West Coast brought together some 100 doctors, nurses and other health professionals for a rally at the BC Legislature, timed to coincide with the COP 26 meeting in Glasgow. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the organizing group, helped formulate the set of demands presented at the rally and write the background document, and spoke at the rally.)

Inspired in part by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who had called the latest IPCC report on climate change a ‘Code Red for humanity’, we were there to declare a climate and ecological ‘Code Red’ for BC, noting: “The climate and ecological crisis is a health crisis. We stand in solidarity for a safe and equitable future for all living creatures and the planet.”

We were also motivated by an unprecedented editorial published in September in more than 200 leading medical journals that stated bluntly: “the greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the amount of global temperature rise below 1.5°C and to restore nature.”

As was the case for Virchow all those years before, the focus of the action agenda we want the BC government to undertake is rooted in the recognition that politics is nothing else but health and wellbeing on a large scale. So in addition to asking the government to declare a climate and ecological emergency, we called for an emergency plan leading to transformative change that would improve the health and wellbeing of the people of BC – and the world beyond.

On the climate change front, we called not only for an end to fossil fuel supports, but the phasing out of fossil fuel production and exports. In addition, we called for an assessment of the health impacts of all energy use in BC and investment in a regenerative zero-emissions economy.

Recognising, as does the UN, that we also face both biodiversity loss and pollution crises, we called for the protection and restoration of nature. In particular, this means protecting natural ecosystems such as old growth forests, enacting a Species at Risk Act and recognizing the human right to a healthy environment, as well as the rights of nature.

Even more broadly, we called on the BC government to put human wellbeing in balance with nature at the heart of decision-making. This includes replacing the GDP as a measure of progress with an alternative such as the Genuine Progress Indicator and creating a Wellbeing budget, enacting a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and establishing the role of a Commissioner for Future Generations. These are all steps that similar-sized jurisdictions such as Aotearoa New Zealand and Wales have taken.

Finally, recognizing that we must protect and improve the health of the most disadvantaged and least healthy groups in society, as well as those who will be most affected by the shift to a more healthy and sustainable society, we called for a Just Transition. It is important, we emphasized, that any action on these ecological crises be undertaken in conjunction with BC’s First Nations and Indigenous people, with a particular focus on addressing social and ecological injustice in BC and around the world.

I like to think Rudolf Virchow would have been proud of us.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Becoming a One Planet Region: Where to begin

Published as “Becoming a One Planet region starts with food

Dr. Trevor Hancock

2 November 2021

700 words

Last week I noted that Saanich – which has an ecological footprint of around 3-4 planets – has taken the first step to becoming a One Planet municipality by adopting a resolution to that effect; staff will report back on next steps. But while Saanich is almost 30 percent of the Greater Victoria Region, that still leaves 12 other municipalities, the CRD and more than 70 percent of the population to follow suit.

The good news is that most if not all of our local municipalities have declared a climate emergency and created a climate action plan, as has the CRD. Since carbon emissions are an important part of the ecological footprint of the region – about 60 percent in Saanich, which is likely the same for the whole region – this is an important start. But our footprint also includes the land and water area we need to provide food and resources such as timber and minerals, to build our communities and their supporting infrastucture and to dispose of wastes.

Moreover, the ecological footprint is an underestimate of our full impact, since it does not include the impacts of many pollutants, especially the persistent organic pollutants we have created that permeate our food chains. Nor does it include species extinctions and the loss of biodiversity. And yet, as the UN has noted, we face a triple ecological crisis: Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

So becoming a One Planet Region – one with a footprint equivalent to our fair share of the Earth’s biocapacity and resources – means addressing this triple crisis while reducing our footprint around 65 – 75 percent. What would that mean and how would it be achieved?

First, we need to recognise the scale of the problem. So we need to measure the ecological footprint of the Greater Victoria Region as well as the level of locally generated pollution and local biodiversity loss. More challengingly, this must include pollution and biodiversity loss elsewhere in the world created in both in the production of the resources we then import and use and the damage from any wastes we export.

This is quite similar to the appraoch needed to undertake the ecological assessment of the Region in a Doughnut Economics city portrait (see my column “True prosperity is doughnut-shaped,” 31 January 2021, and related columns on 7 and 14 March 2021) so we might be able to achieve both together.

Then we need the CRD and all the other municipalities to adopt a One Planet strategy or action plan, as they have done for the climate emergency. Fortunately, the team of Dr. Jennie Moore at the BC Institute of Technology and Cora Hallsworth that assessed Saanich’s ecological footprint in 2018 also identified some key actions to reduce the footprint.

They identfied four broad areas of work: Food (49 percent of Saanich’s footprint), transportation (27 percent), buildings (15 percent), and consumable products and wastes (9 percent). Of these, municipal governments have a fair degree of control over transportation, buildings and waste management, but much less control over the food and agricultural systems and the production, sale and purchasing of consumables. Clearly, becoming a One Planet Region also needs the engagement and support of the citizenry as a whole, the private sector and higher levels of government.

Moore and Hallsworth suggested a number of specific actions that we need to undertake. The two with the greatest benefit in terms of reducing our ecological footprint are related to food. Since more than 70 percent of the food footprint is due to animal-based foods – meat, fish, eggs and dairy – they recommend we should reduce beef and dairy consumption by 50 percent (substituting chicken for the beef) and reduce post-purchase food waste by 25 percent – both being a task for households and the retail and food services industries.

The next largest benefits come from converting half the private vehicle fleet to electric power, reducing the number of kilometers travelled in private vehicles by one quarter, eliminating heating oil and reducing natural gas and propane consumption by two-thirds.

In a future column in this series, I will explore specifically what our local governments can do in these areas to help us become a One Planet Region.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Working towards a One Planet Saanich

26 October 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated almost a year ago “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.” In my view, this can only happen if we recognize, as Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos’ 1972 book put it, that there is ‘Only One Earth’ and we have to learn to live within and not beyond its bounds.

We are a long way from that. According to the Global Footprint Network our ecological footprint, globally, was 1.7 planets in 2017, with 61 percent of that due to carbon emissions. Here in Canada, it was 5 planets, of which almost 65 percent was due to our carbon emissions – and that ignores the emissions from Canada’s exported fossil fuels. So to become a One Planet Canada, we need to reduce our ecological footprint by 80 percent – and we have to do so quite rapidly.

In this region our footprint is a bit less, according to the footprint of both Saanich and Victoria as calculated by Dr. Jennie Moore at the B.C. Institute of Technology and Victoria-based environmental consultant Cora Hallsworth. (This is largely because 90 percent of our electricity is from hydro, not fossil fuels, and we have a more temperate climate year-round than most of Canada). Nonetheless, with a footprint of around 3 – 4 planets, we still need to reduce it by 65 – 75 percent, a massive task that should be “the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere” in the Region. 

In fact Saanich – which we tend to forget is the largest municipality by population in the region – has been hosting and supporting a One Planet Saanich initiative since 2018 and Mayor Fred Haynes has been an enthusiastic supporter. The initiative came to Saanich from a UK-based organization, Bioregional, as part of a small international project.

Coordinated by Cora Hallsworth (with Vancouver-based non-profit OneEarth) and funding first from Bioregional and now from Vancity Credit Union and the District of Saanich, the project engages local community organisations, schools and businesses in developing their own One Planet Action Plans and reporting on their progress in reducing their ecological footprint. You can find a number of their plans published in the Stakeholders page on the One Planet Saanich website.

But Saanich itself does not yet have an overarching strategy to become a One Planet municipality, although it does use the One Planet framework as a ‘lens’ within its Climate Action Plan. In addition it is now developing a Resilient Saanich initiative (an environmental policy framework that will integrate sustainability and the natural environment) and has other relevant initiatives such as its Active Transportation Plan.

So I was glad to see Saanich Council, on October 18th, become the first municipality in the Region – and as far as I know, the first in BC and indeed in Canada – to start down the path to becoming a One Planet municipality. This followed a presentation I made earlier in the summer to the Council’s Healthy Saanich Advisory Committee, in my capacity as founder and President of Conversations for a One Planet Region. The Committee adopted a resolution asking Council to develop a One Planet Action Plan. Council adopted the resolution and referred it to staff to report back on next steps.

One way forward would be to create a One Planet Strategy to embed the ten One Planet principles into all other plans and strategies at the municipality. Saanich could then report its progress using the same One Planet metrics that are currently being developed to create a standard reporting framework for all the One Planet Saanich stakeholders.

What makes these One Planet principles particularly interesting is that they are focused first on people and community. In fact the first three principles are about health and happiness, equity and local economy, and community and culture. Only then do the principles address the ‘usual suspects’ of environmental sustainability, including of course both zero waste and zero-carbon energy.

Saanich is the regional and indeed provincial leader in heeding Mr. Guterres’ call to make peace with nature. Now we just need the rest of the region to get on the same page; more on that next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Sadly, B.C. is still waging war on nature

(Published as ‘Sadly, B.C. is still treating nature as resource to be exploited”)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

19 October 2021

701 words

In this series of columns I am exploring the UN’s call for humanity to make peace with nature. Last week I noted that B.C.’s government is failing to act, or is taking inadequate action, on climate change. This week, I look at B.C.’s continuing war on nature, focusing on the second of three global ecological crises noted in the UN report – biodiversity loss.  But I also look at its failure to address the wider economic, social and other transformations needed if we are to make peace with nature.

In a May 2021 biodiversity report card, Ecojustice and the Wilderness Committee described B.C. as “a ‘poster child’ for the biodiversity crisis — it has the richest biodiversity in Canada, but also the highest number of species at risk.” In fact, the B.C. government’s 2021 update to its Red and Blue List found 782 ecological communities, native species and subspecies in B.C. are at the greatest risk of being lost (Red List) and a further 1,141 on the Blue List that are ‘of special concern’ (vulnerable).

Yet the government reneged on John Horgan’s 2017 commitment to bring in a Species At Risk Act. As a result, B.C. is “one of the few remaining provinces without a stand-alone law to protect at-risk species and the habitat they need to survive and recover”, the biodiversity report card notes. This was one of the four out of five areas considered in the report where B.C. earned an ‘F’ grade.

And then, of course, we have the B.C. government’s failure to implement the recommendations of the Old-growth Strategic Review and put in place a moratorium on the cutting of the tiny fraction – about 3 percent, according to a May 2021 report from three independent forest management experts – of the high-quality old growth big tree forests in B.C.

Also in May, the Wilderness Committee released a report based on publicly available data showing a 43 percent increase in cutblock approvals in the year following the government’s receipt of the Old-growth Strategic Review. Moreover, “eighty per cent of this logging was concentrated in the medium and higher productivity forests.”

In an article on the old-growth issue in The Tyee in June, Michael M’Gonigle – who among other things held the eco-research chair in environmental law and policy at UVic –was blunt: “Horgan’s government of New Democrats shows no will to take up the struggle. It is incredible that, as biodiversity collapses globally and locally, no substantive discussion exists of what a transformation away from [the] inherited political economy might look like.”

The inherited political economy he refers to is rooted in a 19th and 20th century worldview, an industrial society and economy that treats nature and people as a resource to be exploited in the pursuit of continued economic growth. I agree with M’Gonigle that the fundamental problem is that the NDP, like the Liberals and Conservatives to its right, is still rooted in this worldview. From that perspective, what matters is jobs and money – and votes – today, with no sense of long-term responsibility. The only real difference between the parties is about how equitably the spoils and the power are divided.

But the UN Environment Programme is very clear, in its February 2021 report ‘Making Peace with Nature’, that “economic and financial systems can and should be transformed”. Specifically, the report suggests ditching GDP, noting that “Yardsticks such as inclusive wealth (the sum of produced, natural, human and social capital) provide a better basis for investment decisions.”

This is another example of where the NDP could and should have led in the shift to making peace with rather than war on nature – and failed to do so. Its formal agreement with the Green Party in 2017 set up a workgroup to look at developing an alternative to GDP for B.C., but the whole project seems to have been shunted aside and made to disappear into the bureaucracy – no report has emerged, so no significant changes were required and no old thought patterns were harmed.

Clearly we can’t look to B.C.’s government for action on making peace with nature. So in future columns I will look at what ‘making peace with nature’ might mean here in the Greater Victoria Region.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

BC fails to take adequate action on climate crisis

13 October 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

By recognizing that “humanity is waging war on nature”, the UN arrived at the idea of making peace with nature. Regrettably, the BC government pays little heed to calls to make peace with nature, whether from the UN or its own citizens. On the contrary, it continues to make war on nature even though, in the words of the UN Secretary General, this is suicidal.

This week I consider BC’s inadequate action on the first of three global ecological crises the UN recognises – climate change. Next week I will look at BC’s inadequate action on biodiversity loss and pollution, as well as on the wider economic, social and other transformations needed if we are to make peace with nature.

The BC government produces an annual greenhouse gas inventory; the last one, published in August 2020, covers the period from 1990 to 2018. It charts progress in meeting the “legislated emissions reduction targets (a 16 percent decrease by 2025, 40 percent by 2030, 60 percent by 2040, and 80 percent by 2050)” – all compared to the baseline year of 2007.

In 2018, our emissions were 7 percent above 2007 levels, having risen four years in a row, suggesting we are not likely to come anywhere near a 16 percent reduction by 2025, never mind the one third reduction by 2020 that was set by the Liberal government in 2007.

In a critical article in January 2021, Marc Lee, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Co-Director of the Climate Justice Project, pointed out that the modeling and assumptions in the NDP’s 2018 CleanBC plan are inadequate and that “CleanBC does not include any planning to meet BC’s 2040 and 2050 emissions targets.”

Even worse, he notes, “the biggest flaw in CleanBC is that it permits LNG development.” When LNG Canada opens in 2025, he writes, it “will become the province’s largest point source emitter of GHGs the day it opens” and its future emissions “will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for BC to meet its 2040 and 2050 targets.” Note this is only for the emissions created in extracting, processing and transporting the fuel for export, not the emissions that result when these exported fossil fuels are combusted elsewhere.

On top of that, an independent review of BC’s natural gas royalty system, released in September, concludes: “The BC royalty system for natural gas and oil is broken. It does not support and contribute to government and societal goals,” which include supporting BC’s climate commitments. Specifically, the report notes the production rate incentives, introduced in 2001, encourage low-production wells to keep operating, which “does not help meet GHG targets.”

While not really this government’s fault – this is a failure long in the making – it does suggest continuing to provide supports to this industry that are not then adequately recovered through royalties is throwing good money after bad.

Furthermore, adding insult to injury, the NDP continues to support fracking and other fossil fuel investments; indeed, it has almost doubled its support since coming to power, to $1.3 billion annually, according to a September 2020 report from Stand.Earth.

This in spite of the fact that one of the important actions proposed by the UN is to “eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies”, which includes fossil fuel subsidies. Instead, says the UN, “redirect that support to low-carbon and nature-friendly solutions and technologies”. Meanwhile support for Clean BC in the April 2021 budget is only $506 million. So we could triple the support for Clean BC by shifting all that fossil fuel support there.

Moreover, these supports are not popular with the public. As part of its “Stop Funding Fracking” campaign, the Dogwood Initiative recently released the results of a survey conducted by Insights West. The survey found 58 percent of BC respondents are opposed to BC offering financial support to oil and gas companies, while 62 per cent would like to see subsidies reduced or eliminated altogether.

So if BC really wants to be a climate leader, it need to get serious with its Clean BC program, shift all its fossil fuel supports to low carbon solutions and stop funding fracking. Those would be good first steps in making peace with nature.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

‘System-wide transformation’ needed to rebalance ourselves with nature

6 October 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

Last week I mentioned the UN’s call for a ‘peace plan’ and a ‘post-war rebuilding program’ as central to our need to make peace with nature. This week I delve into the plan, which is presented in the February 2021 UN Environment Program report ‘Making Peace with Nature’.

After laying out the scale of the problem, focusing on the three crises of climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution, the report is clear and blunt: “the current expansive mode of development degrades and exceeds the Earth’s finite capacity to sustain human well-being.”

The report is equally clear on the response: “Only a system-wide transformation will achieve well-being for all within the Earth’s capacity to support life, provide resources and absorb waste.”

System-wide transformation – think about that for a moment. The report says we now need “a fundamental change in the technological, economic and social organization of society, including worldviews, norms, values and governance.” In other words, a major cultural shift away from the dominant worldview and ideology that is the source of the problems we face and that has brought us to this critical juncture.

But regrettably, the report notes, “the types of transformational change needed have often been thwarted by vested interests that benefit from preserving the status quo.” We have seen that, of course, in the persistent opposition to action on climate change from the fossil fuel industry and its political supporters. And just last month, three independent UN special rapporteurs on human rights issued a joint statement expressing concern with the adverse influence of the corporate sector in the world’s food systems, leading to a whole host of ecological and social problems.

If the system as a whole is the problem, then tinkering with it and making marginal changes – which is all any of the current political leadership in Canada and, for the most part, around the world, is offering – will not be enough. Indeed, it plainly has not been enough, or we would not be in such a fix after what the UN describes as “decades of incremental efforts.”

A key transformation is to “put human well-being centre stage”, while recognising that human well-being depends ultimately on the ‘well-being’ of the Earth’s ecological systems that are our life support systems.  Meeting the challenge of the climate change crisis alone will require “rapid transformations in areas including energy systems, land use, agriculture, forest protection, urban development, infrastructure and lifestyles.”

But in addition, meeting the crisis of biodiversity loss will require making biodiversity conservation and restoration “integral to the many uses of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems”, which will profoundly change the way we use these systems.

Among other things, the report states, this will require reduced consumption of resources in wealthy countries and by wealthy people, so that those who need more – low-income countries and people – can have more. This means a marked shift from seeing the good life as being rich in consumption of ‘stuff’ to seeing it as rich in terms of relationships with others and with nature.

In terms of economic transformation, the report is clear this means replacing GDP, which “fails to properly account for gains or losses in the natural capital that underpin many vital economic activities or for environmental quality and other non-monetary factors that contribute to human well-being.” Instead, we should look to measures such as ‘inclusive wealth’, which integrates several forms of capital – natural, social, human and produced (human-created), or the Genuine Progress Indicator.

The report also calls for significant investments in nature-friendly water, energy, food and other systems, and at the same time the removal and re-direction of environmentally harmful subsidies towards nature-friendly alternatives. Environmental degradation, an important source of inequality, must be reversed, and inequalities resulting from shifts in production, taxation and subsidies must be remedied.

While BC has prided itself on being ‘Super Natural’, it in fact has a high ecological footprint and has recently been described as a ‘poster child’ for the biodiversity crisis. Troublingly, BC is failing to act, or is taking inadequate action, in many of the areas of transformation called for in this important UN report. BC’s continuing war on nature will be the focus of next week’s column.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

How do we make peace with nature?

29 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

I find myself increasingly drawn to the UN’s framing of our current situation as being at war with nature, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it in a landmark speech at Columbia University in December 2020.  For an organisation that is, after all, intended to be the world’s peacekeeper, the response was obvious: “Making peace with nature”, he went on to say, “is the defining task of the 21st century.”

A report from the UN Environment Program (UNEP), three months later, began to fill in some of the detail as to what ‘making peace with nature’ means in practice. So in this and several subsequent columns I will explore what is involved in doing this, with particular emphasis on local examples. I will look at BC’s recently announced third UN Biosphere Region (Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound), UVic’s ‘green’ civil engineering program, the Municipal Natural Assets program that began in Gibsons, and the work of local architect Christine Lintott in bringing ideas of bio-mimicry into architecture.

I am interested in learning about and profiling other local examples of making peace with nature, so please e-mail me about any you know of. Perhaps over time we can make the Greater Victoria Region a leading model of what it means to make peace with nature.

But first, let’s be clear what the war on nature is. The UNEP report focuses on three global ecological emergencies: Climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution. A wider framing is provided by the concept of ‘planetary boundaries’, first put forth by a team led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009 and then refined in 2015.

They proposed a set of nine Earth systems “and associated thresholds which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change.” In addition to the three identified in the UNEP report, these include ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, global freshwater use, changes in land use and atmospheric particulate aerosols. Staying within these planetary boundaries keeps us within what they called a ‘safe operating space for humanity’.

In the 2015 update to their work, they found that at a global scale we have already passed the suggested boundary for species extinctions and phosphorus and nitrogen flows, and are in a zone of increased risk and approaching the suggested threshold for both climate change and land use change. Back then we were within the ‘safe zone’ for freshwater use and ocean acidification (although the latter was worsening, and has continued to do so), while stratospheric ozone depletion provided a rare success story, in that we have stabilized and are slowly reversing that trend.

Worryingly, they could not even determine a threshold for atmospheric aerosols or for what they called ‘novel entities’: “chemicals and other new types of engineered materials or organisms not previously known to the Earth system.” These include not only chemical pollution – particularly the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that bio-concentrate up food chains and are found now in our bodies – but also heavy metals, GMOs and nano-particles.

Of even greater concern, the 2015 review identified two of the Earth systems – climate change and biosphere integrity – that “should be recognized as core planetary boundaries through which the other boundaries operate.” This, presumably, is why the UNEP identified these two as planetary emergencies, along with pollution, which not only kills at least 9 million people annually, but has an unquantified – and perhaps unquantifiable – planetary boundary.

So yes, we are at war with nature, across multiple fronts simultaneously. But in his foreword to the UNEP report, Mr Guterres extended the analogy of making peace with nature. He suggested we need to see nature as an ally, that we need “a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme”. But let’s be clear; seeing nature as an ally does not mean changing nature to work better for us, it means changing ourselves and our society to work better for nature.

What is our peace plan? What does our post-war rebuilding program look like? That is what I intend to explore, starting next week by examining both the UN plan and the need for a local expression of that as a core part of what it means to be a One Planet Region.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

The global ecological crisis is also a global health crisis

20 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

(Published as ‘Measures to tackle climate change bring health benefits, too’)

701 words

Something extraordinary happened in mid-September: 231 medical journals around the world all published the same editorial, titled “Call for emergency action to limit global temperature increases, restore biodiversity, and protect health.”

Led by a group of chief editors from world-leading journals such as The Lancet, The BMJ and The New England Journal of Medicine, as well as the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the editorial stated, bluntly, “The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1·5°C and to restore nature.”

Tellingly, notes the editorial, the latter – the destruction of nature – “does not have parity of esteem with the climate element of the crisis”. This is an important point. As recent UN reports have begun to recognize – and as governments, by and large, have not – we face not just climate change but multiple and interacting human-driven ecological crises.

This is well illustrated by the concept of planetary boundaries, first proposed in 2009. Nine major Earth systems are identified and boundaries are suggested, beyond which we should not go if we wish to avoid destabilizing our planetary life support system. One of these, of course, is global warming exceeding 1.5 – 20C.

The most recent updating of this model was in 2015; at that point we were already in a zone of high risk for species extinctions and nitrogen and phosphorus flows, in a zone of increased risk for land system and climate change and approaching it for ocean acidification. Troublingly, boundaries could not even be established for a couple of the Earth systems.

The editorial lists some of the health impacts that are already apparent as a result of these changes, including a 50 percent increase in heat–related mortality among older adults in the past 20 years and a host of other health problems related to climate change. But it also points out that “thriving ecosystems are essential to human health and the widespread destruction of nature, including habitats and species, is eroding water and food security and increasing the chance of pandemics.”

Moreover, the clear link between unsustainable development and inequality is made clear. Not only are the most vulnerable people – “children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems” – disproportionately affected, so too are low-income countries and communities.

Ironically, these are places that “have contributed least to the problem” – which historically, and still today, is disproportionately caused by high-income countries. Yet these low-income countries and communities have less capacity to deal with the problems caused by these global ecological crises. The burden of ecologically-related ill health thus falls most heavily on those least able to deal with it.

Which is why the editorial insists that “equity must be at the centre of the global response” and that wealthy countries – such as Canada – will have to make larger and more rapid changes to address these crises. In fact, the editors all agree, “only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory.”

The good news, they point out, is that the dramatic changes we must make bring with them “huge positive health and economic outcomes.” These include improved air quality – which “alone would realise health benefits that easily offset the global costs of emissions reductions” – better diets, more physical activity, improved housing and high-quality jobs.

Now doubtless this will all be dismissed by the same ranting fools that deny the reality and severity of climate change and Covid. But their uneducated and unscientific opinions simply can’t be allowed to count. Nor for that matter can we accept the self-interested views of the major corporations and their government partners that make vast sums of money through their war on nature. They profit from the status quo and ‘business as usual’, and have no interest in ‘fundamental and equitable changes to societies.’

But those of us who do actually care about the wellbeing of both the population and the Earth’s systems that support our wellbeing (and the wellbeing of the myriad of species with which we share the Earth) must, as the editorial puts it, “do all we can to aid the transition to a sustainable, fairer, resilient, and healthier world.”

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy