The carbon tax is good for our health

The carbon tax is good for our health

Dr. Trevor Hancock

19 June 2018

697 words

Doug Ford, the new Premier of Ontario, has just joined the ranks of the political dinosaurs – chief amongst them Donald Trump and his Cabinet as well as several other provincial Premiers – that downplay or ignore the environmental, social, economic and health impacts of climate change. He announced that one of his first acts would be to cancel Ontario’s cap-and-trade system and to challenge the federal government’s carbon tax.

Mr. Ford’s spin on the story – like his twin in the White House – is that a carbon tax is a job killer and bad for families. But in fact a 2011 UN Environment Program report found the transition to a green economy would result in at least as many if not more jobs than ‘business as usual’, while a  2016 report from Canada’s Green Economy Network found that investing in renewable energy would create about one million new jobs, and a2014 study by REMI found that a revenue-neutral carbon tax in the US would create jobs and increase GDP.

As for being bad for families, while the carbon tax is not a job killer, the high-carbon economy that Mr. Ford and his ilk support is a people killer – and how is that good for families? This is because carbon emissions cause climate change, and there are significant health impacts from this. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that “climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050”.

Canada is already experiencing the health effects of climate change, which include the physical and mental health impacts of large forest fires, urban heat events, floods, droughts and – in the North – disappearing sea ice, melting permafrost and changing animal migration patterns. Moreover, as Health Canada notes, “climate change impacts on health will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, including the poor, elderly, and the young and those who are chronically ill”, as well as the “socially disadvantaged and people living in vulnerable geographical areas” such as the North.

In addition, air pollution is a major cause of death, and has a large economic impact. Globally, general outdoor air pollution – much of it due to fossil fuel combustion – was responsible for more than 3 million premature deaths in 2010, according to the Global Burden of Disease study. Almost 90 percent of those deaths occur in middle and low-income countries, the 2017 report of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health noted.

In Canada, a report from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) estimated that 21,000 Canadians would die as a result of air pollution in 2008. In addition, there would be 11,000 hospital admissions, 92,000 emergency department visits and620,000 visits to a doctor’s office for treatment.

Moreover, our supposedly economically wise leaders also ignore or discount the economic costs of these health impacts, and the economic benefits of preventing air pollution. For climate change, the WHO states “The direct damage costs to health . . . is estimated to be between USD 2-4 billion/year by 2030”, while the CMA estimated the health care costs alone in Canada due to outdoor air pollution in 2010 would amount to $438 million, while productivity losses would be $688 million.

Failure to implement a carbon tax and take other steps to rapidly and dramatically reduce carbon emissions and associated air pollution due to fossil fuel combustion leads to major health problems, globally and in Canada. Clearly Mr. Ford  and others of his persuasion don’t care about people dying in other parts of the world, or even in their own backyards; they prefer short-term gain and don’t mind inflicting long-term pain to get it.

But for those of us who do care, carbon taxes – while not the whole answer – are an important part of the strategy. Just as we raised taxes on tobacco as part of a much broader public health campaign, so too we need to raise taxes on fossil fuels – which some people call ‘the new tobacco’. By doing so we can help to reduce the health impacts of climate change around the world, reduce local air pollution, and create jobs in the emerging clean energy sector.  So wake up, Mr. Ford, and smell the clean air.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018


Meeting the SDGs in the Greater Victoria Region

Meeting the SDGs in the Greater Victoria Region

Dr. Trevor Hancock

11 June 2018

699 words

I can see it now – lots of furrowed brows: What the heck are SDGs? Well, they are the world’s new Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by all the members of the UN in 2015, they are extremely ambitious, to be achieved by 2030 – and Canada, like all the rest of the world’s countries has signed on. But what exactly have we signed on to, and what does it mean at the local level?

These questions were explored in a recent meeting organized by the Victoria Foundation and the BC Council for International Cooperation, which is working to publicise the SDGs and encourage and support local action based on them. The Council estimates there are more than 2000 groups in BC alone working on some aspect of the SDGs, with three-quarters of that effort focused on local, provincial or national work.

I am not going to review all 17 of the goals, never mind the 169 targets; you can find them easily on the internet. But it is important to understand that they are a unit, not a menu; all countries have signed on to deal with all of them, not just the ones they fancy. So I want to highlight both key themes and ambitions and those that may have particular resonance locally.

The first group of goals are about meeting basic needs; nobody, anywhere, should be living in poverty (Goal 1) or going hungry (Goal 2) in 2030, and there should be clean water and sanitation for all (Goal 6); linked to this is Goal 10 – reduced inequalities. Then there is a group of SDGs that focuses on what I would call human and social development: Goal 3 (good health and wellbeing); Goal 4 (quality education); Goal 5 (gender equality) and Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).

Of course, there is a group of SDGs focused on the Earth’s natural systems: Climate action (Goal 13) and affordable and clean energy (Goal 7) as well as life below water (Goal 14) and on land (Goal 15). The economic dimension is addressed through Goal 8 – decent work and economic growth, with the latter linked to Goal 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) and all in the context of Goal 7 (clean energy) and Goal 12 – responsible consumption and production.

Clearly there are many groups and organisations focused on these four big issues: Poverty, human and social development, protection of the Earth’s natural systems, and the creation of an ecologically sustainable and just economy. That is why Goal 17 – partnerships for the SDGs – is so important; we cannot just work in isolation within those four major themes but must treat them as an interacting whole, a set of challenges that require a comprehensive, integrated, holistic set of responses.

We must recognize that ‘sustainable’ in this context means socially as well as ecologically sustainable. Poverty and high levels of inequality are not socially sustainable, and among other things this results in a huge loss of human potential and social capital, which in turn undermines the economy.  But we must also understand that the economy must be the servant to ecologically and socially sustainable human development, not the master of it, as is too often the case today.

Finally there is the goal that brings it all down to the local level and which the Victoria Foundation has embraced: Sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11). Fortunately there are a number of groups emerging in this region that are attempting to create at a local level the holistic approach noted above, with some attention beginning to focus on the concept of a One Planet region.

These include five initiatives in which I am personally involved to varying degrees, and which take different approaches: The One Planet Saanich initiative I wrote about in my last column; the Conversations for a One Planet Region that I coordinate; Greater Victoria Acting Together; Creatively United for the Planet, and Common Vision, Common Action. The latter has developed a policy platform for candidates who chose to run on the themes of ecological and social justice and sustainability in the up-coming municipal elections.

So if you share our concerns and values get involved, get active, and vote your values.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Shedding light on our ecological footprint

Shedding light on our ecological footprint

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 June 2018

703 words

Last week I described the measurement of the ecological footprint (EF) of this region. Here I discuss the findings in more detail, and the implications for our way of life and public policy. What must we do if we are to reduce our EF by around two-thirds, to get from two to three planet’s worth of impact to our fair share, which is one planet’s worth? And what would that mean for our health and wellbeing?

The largest single benefit in terms of reducing our EF, Dr. Jennie Moore and Cora Hallsworth suggest, will come from eliminating carbon emissions from the fossil fuels we use for heating, cooling and electrical supply in our buildings; so we must oppose the mining and export or use of coal, oil and gas and strongly support clean, green, renewable energy.

But one of their most surprising findings is that almost half of our ecological footprint is attributable to our food, and mainly our high-meat, high-dairy diet, which accounts for almost three-quarters of our food EF. This is because it takes a lot of land, energy and other resource inputs to produce meat, especially beef, and – to a lesser extent – dairy.

Not surprisingly then, one of their key suggestions is that we reduce our meat consumption by 25 percent, replacing it with chicken (or non-meat alternatives); they also suggest reducing dairy food consumption by 25 percent

This would be not only environmentally beneficial, but good for health. Evidence suggests a low-meat diet has a number of health benefits, including reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.So I like a slogan I saw recently – “Make meat a side dish”; this is completely in line with Michael Pollan’s simple guide to food policy and consumption – “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.

In addition to changing what we eat, they suggest we reduce overall food purchasing by 25 percent. Eating less is perhaps the most important way in which we can reduce obesity rates, and purchasing less food overall will also reduce food waste. But this means demanding that food producers, stores and restaurants of all sorts reduce portion size, as well as providing more low-meat or vegetarian alternatives.

Our current transportation system is another important contributor to our EF, accounting for about a quarter of it, with most of that due to private vehicles. Moore and Hallsworth suggest that half of all private vehicles need to be electric powered, although of course, that electricity needs to come from clean, renewable energy systems, not from fossil-fueled plants.

However, while switching to electric vehicles will reduce both carbon emissions and air pollution, it will not solve other problems such as congestion, injuries or a sedentary lifestyle. For that, we need to change the way we move around.

In her assessment of the EF of Vancouver, Dr. Moore also suggested a marked increase in active transportation, with as much as 86 percent of all trips made by walking, biking, rolling or using public transit; that would also apply here.

The health benefits of these transportation policies include reduced air pollution, reduced injuries (public transit is far safer), reduced greenhouse gases (and thus reduced health impacts from climate change), increased physical activity and reduced commuter stress.

We now have an exciting opportunity to look at some of these ideas in more depth right here in Saanich. Bioregional is a UK-based non-profit organisation that encourages and supports One Planet planning. With funding from a Danish foundation, they are starting a one-year project in 4 cities around the world, one of which is Saanich; the others are Elsinore (Denmark), Durban (South Africa) and Oxfordshire (UK).

Here they are partnering with the District of Saanich and a Vancouver-based group, One Earth. The project involves recruiting andtraining a team of 10 – 15 ‘One Planet Integrators’ who will then support up to a 24 business, school, and community organization stakeholders to make their own One Planet Action Plansover the next year.

To learn more visit the website at www.oneplanetsaanich.orgor come to hear Pooran Desai, Bioregional’s founder, speak at a special session at UVic co-hosted by Conversations for a One Planet Region, Wednesday June 20th, 7 – 9PM, in the HSD Lecture Theater (Room A240).

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

We need to shed a couple of planet’s worth of footprint

We need to shed a couple of planet’s worth of footprint

Dr. Trevor Hancock

29 May 2018

692 words

The concept of the ecological footprint was developed by Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees at UBC in the early 1990s. They were trying to find a way to express in simple terms our impact on the Earth. The widespread use of the concept since then suggests they succeeded.

The ecological footprint (EF) measures our impact in terms of the amount of biologically productive land and sea we need to provide the crops and fish we use for food, the grass and feed crops we use for livestock, the timber we use for paper and wood, and the land we need planted in trees to absorb our carbon emissions (‘energy land’). This is then compared to the actual biological capacity (biocapacity) of the Earth.

Of course, like all indicators, it is only a partial representation of reality – for example, it does not include mining’s impacts, nor the area needed to absorb persistent organic pollutants, since there is no good way to measure it. Nonetheless, the EF has proven quite useful, and has been applied to everything from individuals to hospitals to the entire global population.

Globally, we surpassed the Earth’s biocapacity in about 1970 and currently use about 1.7 times the biocapacity of the Earth, with about half of that due to our carbon emissions. Clearly this is not sustainable, and is even less so in high-income countries, which have much larger footprints. If the whole planet lived the way we do in North America, we would need more than five Earths to support ourselves, which is obviously impossible – something has to give.

Recently Dr. Jennie Moore, Associate Dean of the School of Construction and the Environment at BCIT, together with Cora Hallsworth, a Victoria-based environmental consultant, measured the EF of both Saanich and the City of Victoria. Between them these municipalities are about half of the regional population, and probably fairly representative of the whole region She presented the results at a recent Conversations for a One Planet Region meeting; her presentation is available on the Conversations website.

Dr. Moore uses a somewhat different approach, measuring the EF using data on household purchasing and consumption and waste composition studies. When combined with data on greenhouse gas emissions from the two municipalities, they calculated the footprint due to our food consumption, transportation, construction and operation of our buildings and the creation and disposal of many of the products we consume.

Measured in this way, the total ecological footprint for Saanich and Victoria is about two planet’s worth, with most of that coming from energy land and cropland. Specifically, almost half our footprint comes from food, with much of that attributable to the large land area needed to support our diet high in meat, eggs and dairy products. Roughly another quarter is attributable to our transport system, with half of that from use of private vehicles.

However, this approach does not measure energy used in manufacturing goods that are exported, nor what Dr. Moore calls ‘senior government services’ – resources used in providing government services that we do not purchase directly, but pay for through our taxes. Thus it underestimates the impact of our activities, meaning our footprint is in excess of two planet’s worth of the Earth’s biocapacity.

So we use considerably more than our fair share of the Earth’s biocapacity. If the rest of the world’s people are to have a fair shake at a decent way of life, we are going to have to figure out how we can shed perhaps as much as two planet’s worth of footprint – while at the same time maintaining a good quality of life and good health for everyone. This is what we mean by a ‘One Planet Region’.

Now we have the data, we can start to discuss this, understand the implications and what we need to change, and then begin to imagine and design what our community would be like in the future. To my mind this is the most important challenge facing us in the 21st century. Next week, I will go into Dr. Moore’s findings in more detail, and their implications for our way of life and public policy in this region.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018