Written by Chad Berndt and Mike Kurz

Resolutions are all about choices.  The choices we make determine our future and the future of those around us.  There are some interesting choices being made in the world right now regarding air pollution:

space smog over beijin, Dec7 2013
Smog over Beijing and Shanghai, from December 2013 satellite image

Take for example the recent news out of China.  Officials in various provinces and cities are deciding what to do about the fireworks for their New Year celebrations. The city of Hangzhou (near Shanghai) has called off their fireworks display.  Beijing is also considering a ban and have sent out mass text messages to the residents to urge them to reduce their use.  Why you ask?  Because the air pollution is so bad that adding any more is a serious concern (not to mention you can’t see the big displays through the smog).  Imagine that – the inventors of fireworks are giving up fireworks during the biggest celebration of the year.

This is one of the many choices China is being forced to confront in their battle for air quality.  Here are some quick stats to highlight the problem.  China consumes as much coal as the rest of the world combined.  As a result their air pollution levels are about 14x higher than recommended by the WHO for maximum daily exposure.   Studies have found that pollution related to coal power generation has led to an average decrease in life expectancy of 5 years for 500 million people living in Northern China.  An 8 year old girl developed lung cancer, for which pollution is blamed, and the WHO has determined that air pollution does indeed cause lung cancer.  The obvious negative impacts to the population have forced this issue into the mainstream political dialogue in China.  It’s important to keep in mind that this is not solely a Chinese issue – we are all breathing the same air and many global factors contribute to the situation China is experiencing.

So what are they doing about it?

Other choices China is making to curb particulate matter pollution include publicly releasing data on levels of particulate pollution, removing high-polluting vehicles from the road, setting goals limiting coal consumption as a percentage of the electricity generation mix, and heavily supporting renewable energy generation (China is now the largest wind and solar market in the world).

What are Ontario & UHN doing about it?

This New Year’s “Revolution” being all about choices, let’s look at some of the choices we have made here in Ontario and at UHN to try to minimize air pollution.  Ten years ago Ontario’s supply mix included 25% coal, which has been reduced to virtually zero today.  Renewable energy use and energy efficiency have been encouraged and Ontario has been a leader in North America in these sectors.  Ontario has also enforced vehicle emissions standards and fuel efficiency standards to help combat pollution. These things and other measures cost money, but they also produce jobs and improve our health.  The Canadian Medical Association estimates that air pollution results in $4 billion dollars per year in health care costs, lost productivity, loss of quality of life, and loss of life.

UHN has also chosen to take several steps to improve indoor and outdoor air quality, including:

  1. Pursuing LEED certification for some new construction (Krembil Discovery Tower)
  2. Expanding the role of the energy and environment department, to focus on saving energy, reducing emissions, and improving building functionality
  3. Improving employee outreach programs to foster sustainable behavior in the workplace
  4. Quantifying and tracking waste streams and utility costs
  5. Refining design guidelines to mandate the use of efficient equipment

What can you do about it?

There are a great many things you can do, many you’ve heard before:

  1. Use low VOC products at home (paint, cleaners, sprays, etc).  VOCs react with sunlight and nitric oxide to form ground level ozone (smog).
  2. Support renewable energy by buying RECs for your home or supporting companies that do.  (RECs are available from companies such as Bullfrog Power or Renewable Choice).
  3. Save energy at home and at work (let’s keep those coal plants off).
  4. Take transit, bike, walk, carpool, have you car serviced.
  5. Buy local to reduce transportation.
  6. Ask your work what they are doing to reduce emissions and air pollution.