OP-ED: Green investment and resilient communities lead to a brighter future

Opinion reprinted from The Hamilton Spectator

By Kim Perrotta, April 19, 2020

The federal minister of environment and climate change has floated the idea of Canada rebuilding its economy by investing in clean technologies and resilient communities. This could be wonderful news for the health of Canadians today and in the future.

By investing in energy efficiency, renewable energies, electric vehicles, public transit, and rail service, we can decrease air pollution, which would in turn, reduce asthma symptoms, lung cancer, heart disease, strokes and a host of other acute and chronic health conditions. Air pollution is still a significant health risk factor in Canada. Responsible for more than 14,000 premature deaths and 2.7 million asthma symptom days each year, Health Canada estimates that air pollution costs $114 billion in health impacts each year. These are health impacts that can be avoided by investing in green technologies.

By investing in walkable communities, cycling infrastructure, public transit and green spaces in our urban centres, we could foster physical activity, which would in turn, reduce chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, colon cancer and Type 2 diabetes, and improve mental health. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, chronic diseases cost Canada about $190 billion per year in treatment and lost productivity. By investing in resilient communities, we could also make it easier for people, who cannot drive or do not own cars, to access jobs, services and recreational opportunities. These investments could make our communities more equitable as well as healthier.

Investments in green technologies and resilient communities would also create a healthier and more stable future for our children by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. While climate change has receded from the minds of many as we contend with the more immediate health risks and financial concerns presented by COVID-19, it has not disappeared.

Climate change is a public health catastrophe in the making. While the health impacts are less apparent than COVID-19, climate change is already claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people, and endangering the health of hundreds of millions, each year. Canadians are no longer immune to those impacts. Over the last decade, the physical and mental health of Canadians has been harmed by floods, ice storms, extreme heat, hurricanes, wildfires and air pollution — all of which have become more frequent and more intense as the climate has warmed.

While COVID-19 threatens the lives of millions around the world today, climate change is disrupting the ecosystems upon which we are all dependent for our food, clothing and housing. It threatens our ability to live on this planet and it threatens to do so within the lifetime of our children.

Just a few months ago, 25 Canadian health organizations representing doctors, nurses, public health professionals, and health advocates across this country, endorsed a Call to Action on Climate Change and Health, which identified climate change as “the greatest health threat of the 21st century,” a phrase originally coined by the World Health Organization. But it also identified climate solutions “as the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century,” a phrase coined by the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet.

By investing in green technologies and resilient communities, the federal government could turn the greatest health threat into the greatest global health opportunity. It could improve the health of Canadians today, while providing a stable and healthy future for our children. They could create something good come out of the tragedy, grief and loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kim Perrotta is a public health professional who has worked on environmental issues from a health perspective for 35 years.