Seeing Clearly Through the Haze

Human health and safety is inextricably tied to the need for enhanced protection of the environment and mitigation of climate change. Banner image: Shutterstock/Alex Stemmers
Seeing Clearly Through the Haze

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Globally, over 8 million premature deaths can be attributed annually to poor air quality. In Canada alone, over 15,000 premature deaths and CAD 120 billion in social costs can be attributed annually to poor indoor and outdoor air quality. Reducing emissions and air pollution would have a dramatic effect on these numbers. It is clear that human health and safety is inextricably tied to the need for enhanced protection of the environment and mitigation of climate change and the enormous impacts that it is having on all aspects of life around the world. Adapting to these changes will require massive investments of financial, human and social capital, creating challenges and incredible opportunities for innovation, growth and prosperity, to both address existing problems and avoid substantial economic cost. While many will continue to prosper under these challenges environmental inequity may also grow, with marginalised and Indigenous communities too often carrying a disproportionate burden of the environmental impacts.

The many sources of atmospheric particles, along with their diverse properties and complex atmospheric chemistries, means that exploring their complicated linkages with climate change, air pollution and human health requires concerted interdisciplinary collaborations. These projects unite researchers from domains ranging from climate science, engineering, public health, medicine, physics and chemistry to biology and public policy. Here at the University of Toronto, research conducted in the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research (SOCAAR), has shown how global atmospheric aerosol generation, be it naturally occurring or anthropogenic, has clear impacts from the global to the local community levels. A particularly relevant example, from a Canadian perspective, has been the rapid increase in the number, size, and scale of wildfires, directly attributable to climate change. This was most obvious with the wildfire that devasted the town of Lytton, British Columbia in the summer of 2021, attributed in part to a heat dome that resulted in daytime temperatures of nearly 50˚C. These wildfires and their impact on the local environment may have accentuated the massive damage due to flooding in the interior of BC that happened only a few months later. This climate-driven cycle of heat, fire and flooding will reoccur more often, accompanied by staggering economic impacts. Moreover, wildfires have additional impact on health, through both indoor and outdoor exposure, further increasing the economic and social costs. The impact of these pollutants on human health has been a topic of keen interest for SOCCAR researchers, going back over two decades.

Particles generated in one region of the globe, be they man-made or naturally occurring, can impact the air quality in countries on the other side of the world. Conversely, efforts to address aerosol particle generation at the local level will in fact have global implications while the global need for rapid decarbonisation can drive local initiatives to mitigate and adapt to these impacts. For Canada, its ambitious decarbonisation goal of a 45% reduction by 2030 along with the challenges of climate adaptation over the coming decade will require a transformation that offers an opportunity to reduce emissions and improve health while addressing environmental inequity. These are not uniquely Canadian considerations but in fact are mirrored around the world as we all grapple with this crisis.

Also on the Forum Network: Climate and Health: Inequality is a political decision by Raymond Gemen, Senior Policy Manager Health Inequalities/Communications Coordinator, European Public Health Alliance (EPHA)

Communities are often the focal point for these transformations: they enable and reflect both where and how we live. While steps taken towards decarbonisation can achieve “a greater good” at the national and international levels, we must also consider local impacts and benefits on communities. For example, we have seen how efforts directed at increasing urban density and building new transportation infrastructure can lead to changes in emission patterns and aerosol composition that detract from air quality. We need to look at the complex interplay between vehicle density, traffic patterns, vehicle type (e.g. passenger or commercial, electric or petrol engine), the nature of the pollutants that are being generated, and importantly how the local built environment contributes to the dispersion—and hence concentrations—of these pollutants, especially as a function of season. What are the potential acute and chronic health concerns for those living, working and transiting through these regions? Moreover, we must not discount the importance of indoor air quality and its impact on health, as we have learnt through the ongoing pandemic. Building design, ventilation and, in particular, the energy costs associated with air cleaning and its commensurate impact on climate change need to be acknowledged as part of the transformation equation. It is critically important that those charged with creating and managing development and land use policies, especially in urban environments, recognise and value these perspectives. It is these local complexities that can provide key insights and influence policy decisions.

Smart transformations need to focus on both the envisioned outcome and the transition required to get there. For example, increasing urban population density offers substantial opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally and create healthier and equitable communities. However, the intense infill construction required to accomplish this within existing neighbourhoods will necessarily be accompanied by changes in pollution, congestion and stress during the transition. At the same time, we need to clearly recognise and quantify the long-term post-transformation exposure effects. These will have both direct and indirect impacts on the health and well-being of members of the community. We need to learn from the transformation process itself so that this knowledge can be applied towards even smarter future changes. It is critical that the transformation be monitored and evaluated in “real-time” with the key stakeholders—government, community members, industry—so that new knowledge can be rapidly extracted to guide change. This process of “learning while doing” needs to be a core tenet in order to ensure that truly “smart” transformation occurs. Life-long learning, particularly through outreach and public education and engagement, needs to be a core component of this transformation, and universities that combine both teaching and research through embedded units like SOCAAR are and will continue to play a crucial role in this process.

Read the report The long-term environmental implications of COVID-19 and see the latest OECD data for #ClimateAction, recommendations and policy advice on the Green Recovery

Related Topics

Climate Health Sustainable Development Goals International Co-operation

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