January 19, 2021

By John McNally and Paige Olmsted


While the COVID-19 pandemic continues across Canada, climate action is beginning the year with newfound focus. As attention turns to implementing a new national plan that is projected to exceed Canada’s 2030 Paris targets, policymakers are considering the full suite of costs and benefits that emerge from ambitious climate action and cleaner growth.

One substantial set of benefits emerges across a range of investments and measures to reduce emissions, adapt to climate impacts and drive cleaner growth: Better outcomes for human health. These investments in areas such as low-carbon infrastructure and nature-based solutions can support healthier communities by reducing pollution and improving physical and mental well-being across Canada. The intersection of climate action with improved health is especially relevant as Canada considers avenues to enhance its resilience to future climate impacts and pandemics.

In the coming months, Smart Prosperity Institute will be advancing research and discussions linking clean growth with human health to identify some of the positive health co-benefits. Our research will help policymakers integrate health considerations into discussions around clean growth and nature-based solutions, with the aim of serving as a catalyst for advancing greater considerations of human health in Canadian climate action. 


Climate change and health co-benefits

The negative health impacts of climate change are well-detailed. As Canada is expected to continue warming 2-3 times faster than the global average, the costs of climate change on human health will continue to grow. Extreme heat and cold events will increase occupational risk, and susceptibility to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Weather-related natural hazards will impose costs on mental health and well-being in communities across Canada. Warmer climates increase the range of mosquitoes, ticks and animals carrying vector-borne diseases. These are just a few of the health costs that climate change will impose on communities across Canada.

Yet not all health outcomes linked to climate change or climate action will be costs. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, supporting clean innovation and investing in natural solutions, all offer a host of health co-benefits to communities. Actions that reduce air pollution, notably by reducing levels of air pollutants that occur as a result of fossil fuel combustion, can lead to improvements in health outcomes by lowering mortality, and reducing the incidence of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Investments in green spaces and nature-based solutions like urban parks and natural landscapes have been linked to a host of co-benefits to physical and mental well-being including reduced stress, higher levels of social cohesion, and lower risk of anxiety and depression. Targeted investments in electrified public transit and low-carbon community infrastructure can potentially improve accessibility to services, which offers benefits for health equity and community resilience.


Focusing on health

Better integrating these considerations into decision-making is useful for energy and climate policy makers in two important ways.

First, it can bolster the economic case for ambitious investments and measures to combat climate change. A 2020 study led by Harvard’s Joseph Aldy identified that health co-benefits were responsible for over half of the total benefits resulting from federal air quality regulations in the United States from 1997-2019. Greater inclusion of these benefits can more holistically represent the value to society that emerges from investing in clean growth solutions and climate action.

Second, it can help policymakers better understand which investments or measures might offer the largest benefits to individual communities. In communities where air pollution imposes above average costs on human health, targeted clean growth investments that reduce both greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions from the largest emitting sources will offer significant benefits. In others, where air pollution costs are lower but access to green space is limited, targeted investments in nature-based solutions may offer greater benefits for physical and mental health. While these measures are likely to offer health benefits in any community, accounting for health impacts and targeting communities based on their specific needs can help policymakers ensure investments offer communities the solutions that best fit their requirements.

Accounting for the health co-benefits of clean growth and climate action is not a simple task, and more research and tools are needed to assist Canadian policymakers. In the coming months, the Smart Prosperity Institute will be undertaking work to help policymakers better understand and account for the health benefits emerging from investments in low-carbon infrastructure, nature-based solutions, and a green economic recovery from COVID-19. Supporting greater integration of health benefits into the clean growth and climate change discussion is a critical step for ensuring the true costs and benefits of climate action are captured. SPI is excited to contribute to the ongoing discussion, as Canada continues to consider how best to invest in creating a more resilient future.

Paige Olmsted

Senior Research Associate