COVID-19 recovery can help in climate crisis

By Dr. Charles Gardner
Ian Culbert
Kim Perrotta

June 23, 2020

Canada has a moral obligation to move quickly to reduce its emissions, Dr. Charles Gardner, Ian Culbert and Kim Perrotta write.

Reprinted from The Hamilton Spectator with permisssion.

The Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology has been consulting on the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As public health professionals, we see this as an opportunity to ensure that some good comes from the sacrifices and losses caused by the pandemic. We see it as an opportunity to avoid the public health crisis presented by climate change.

The pandemic has given us a taste of the social and economic dislocation that can result from an unplanned disruption to society, and yet the disruption caused by COVID-19 pales in comparison to what is expected if we allow global warming to continue unabated.

Over the last decade, we have seen an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires, smoke, floods, heat waves, hurricanes and droughts, resulting from global warming approaching 1 C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a bleak picture of the devastation we can expect if we allow global warming to exceed 1.5 C: coral reefs dying, fish populations disappearing, crops failing, coastal communities being flooded and hundreds of millions of people struggling to find food and water. This is no longer a distant reality; it could be our reality within the next 30 years if we do not dramatically and steadily reduce our climate emissions in the coming years.

Canada is not immune. Global warming will have the greatest impact on our most vulnerable populations. Our elderly, those with pre-existing diseases, and those who live on low incomes will be harmed the most by heat waves, wildfires, flooding and rising food prices. People who live in Northern communities will have to deal with collapsing homes, failing roads and increasing food insecurity as permafrost melts and ice roads become less stable. But a warming planet, and the social and economic disruption that warming will unleash, threatens the health of all Canadians.

The IPCC has concluded that all the world’s nations must reduce their climate emissions to zero by 2050 if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. As a wealthy country that is among the top 10 emitters of climate emissions, Canada has a moral obligation to move quickly to reduce its emissions. The most significant sources of emissions in our country are the oil and gas sector (25 per cent), transportation (25 per cent), the electricity sector (11 per cent), heavy industry (11 per cent), buildings (11 per cent) and the agriculture sector (10 per cent). Actions to reduce emissions will be needed within each of these sectors if we are to do our share.

The net-zero goal is possible. Energy and financial analysts Ralph Torrie, Celine Bak and Toby Heaps have conducted a comprehensive analysis which found that by investing $10 billion per year over the next decade, the federal government could create more than 5 million years of employment by greening electricity generation, electrifying the transportation sector, and upgrading our homes and workplaces by 2030. They found that these investments would put us on the path to a net zero future, save Canadians $39 billion per year in gasoline, heating and electricity bills by 2030, while creating millions of high-quality jobs.

These investments, and others directed at public transit, bike lanes and walkable communities, would also save lives and reduce chronic diseases, emergency room visits and health care costs. By reducing air pollution and increasing physical activity, these investments could produce tens of billions of dollars in health-related benefits each year. If properly directed, they could also reduce health inequities in our society. Investments in public transit, bike lanes, low-income housing and Indigenous communities could produce health and social benefits for low-income populations. If paired with retraining and retooling funds, these investments could help transition workers, industries and communities impacted by the phase-out of fossil fuels and the technologies that run on them.

The COVID-19 pandemic could provide us with the opportunity to reduce the impact of the public health crisis posed by global warming. Through its economic recovery plan, the federal government is going to invest billions of dollars to kick-start our economy over the coming years. Invested wisely, those funds can make the changes needed to avoid catastrophic climate change and create a more sustainable and equitable society.

Dr. Charles Gardner is medical officer of health for Simcoe Muskoka and a member with the Ontario Public Health Association; Ian Culbert is executive director for the Canadian Public Health Association and Kim Perrotta is executive director for the nonprofit organization Creating Health ad Sustainable Environments.