February 9, 2021

By: Madeleine McGillivray and John McNally


As Canada continues the climb towards an economic recovery, conversations continue about the potential to invest in a green and inclusive recovery.  While it is critical that Canada invest in a green recovery that benefits all Canadians, policymakers making investments need to consider how to maximize the overall benefit from each dollar spent.

One critical consideration in this discussion is human health. Clean growth, low-carbon and natural solutions all offer health benefits to individuals and communities. To ensure policymakers are able to maximize the benefits available from recovery investments, they should take into account positive health outcomes available from projects to ensure that each community benefits from investments that reduce emissions, support equity, build resilience, and create healthier communities.

To advance the conversation on health benefits and the green recovery, the team at SPI has taken on analysis of prominent green economic recovery plans discussed in Canada to identify which projects being advanced in a green recovery offer the most promise to support positive health outcomes. It is important to understand which health benefits emerge from these projects because it allows for a discussion around which projects might offer the greatest health benefits in which communities, and which measures might offer the greatest opportunities to advance health in a national green recovery.

While this topic will be discussed in detail in an upcoming report, this blog provides an overview of a few high-level findings.


What will build the green recovery?

Green recovery reports propose plans to create a long-term economic recovery that will be sustainable, competitive and resilient. While each report is filled with a range of potential projects and investments, ranging from electrified public transit to supporting the build out of renewable electricity, the health benefits (or co-benefits) associated with each project will vary depending on where a project is built or installed. Importantly, direct environmental health benefits also vary depending on which pollutants (air, water, heat/noise) are decreased as a result of a project being built.

SPI conducted an assessment of prominent green economic recovery plans discussed in Canada to identify which projects were being advanced in green recovery discussions.  This analysis allows for a comparison of the health benefits associated with specific projects. This analysis had three criteria: One, is this a project or technology (rather than a policy measure whose impacts are more difficult to predict)? Two, is this project advanced in more than 50% of green recovery reports in Canada? Three, has there been credible evaluations of the health impacts of these projects when adopted at scale?

This analysis looked at three categories within a green economic recovery: zero emissions personal/public transport, renewable electricity, and low-carbon buildings/homes.  Within the three categories, seven leading projects were identified:

  • Commercial building retrofits – energy efficiency
  • Residential building retrofits – energy efficiency
  • Housing retrofits – energy efficiency
  • Installing solar electricity generation
  • Installing wind electricity generation
  • Zero emissions vehicles – personal vehicles
  • Zero emissions vehicles – public transit

This set of prominently advanced projects, which have emerged through our analysis as areas of consensus to be advanced, will likely occur across Canada in a wider green recovery.


Zero emissions personal and public transport

The two transportation projects, zero emissions personal vehicles and public transit, identified in this list of green recovery investments offer substantial health benefits. Notably, the reductions in air pollutants associated with substituting internal combustion engines with personal zero emissions vehicles (ZEV) has been directly correlated with an increase in life expectancy and a decrease in mortality, as well as a reduced incidence of a number of cardiovascular and noncommunicable diseases. A study conducted in the United Kingdom found that a substantial use of ZEVs would significantly decrease GHG emissions, resulting in decreased mortality and increased life expectancy.

ZEV adoption in public transportation significantly reduces both the risk and incidence of a number of negative health outcomes associated with exposure to GHGs that come as a result of public transportation combustion, including: the development of cardiovascular, respiratory, and noncommunicable diseases resulting in increased rates of mortality. Restructuring public transportation systems to zero-emission modes of transportation can yield a number of health co-benefits, such as decreased incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.


Clean energy and clean air

Switching to renewable sources of electricity, including both wind and solar projects advocated for in green recovery strategies, is estimated by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment to offer $4.9 billion CAD in savings by 2055 in combined environmental and health benefits. Fossil-fuel based energy sources have been connected to a number of adverse health effects, largely due to their impacts on air quality. Carbon-intensive electricity sources have been associated with the development of cardiovascular, pulmonary, and non-communicable diseases causing death. Approximately 14 600 premature deaths per year can be attributed to poor air quality across Canada. It is estimated that adverse health impacts caused by air pollution in Canada cost $114 billion dollars per year.

The introduction of renewable energy assets generates a number of health co-benefits through the reduction of GHG emissions and therefore improves air quality. As non-emitting sources, solar and wind power both reduce air pollution, resulting in decreased incidences of cardio-pulmonary diseases, improved mortality, and fewer hospital visits for cardiovascular and respiratory related illnesses. An example of this can be found in Northern China, where a densely populated region transitioned to renewable energy projects. The introduction of these projects resulted in 2.3 fewer premature deaths per year and improved cardio-pulmonary conditions, leading to fewer hospitalizations for chronic cardiovascular and respiratory ailments.


Health and low-carbon buildings and homes

The expansion of green buildings and retrofitting can greatly improve the health of those living in and near these buildings. Buildings that have not been retrofitted have been associated with increased incidence of asthma (particularly in children), cardiovascular illnesses, and other respiratory diseases. The health co-benefits associated with greater energy efficiency in building are two-fold: first, they offer direct health benefits in the form of decreased incidences of cardio-pulmonary diseases, improved mortality, and fewer hospital visits for cardiovascular and respiratory related illnesses. Second, they offer indirect health benefits by reducing fossil-fuel based energy consumption, thereby resulting in improvements in air quality.

Homes with poor indoor air quality increase the occupants’ risk of developing cardiovascular, respiratory, urological, and noncommunicable diseases causing death. Green and retrofitted homes can also have significant positive impacts on the health of the occupants. Indoor air quality in homes can be greatly improved by green building practices resulting in a number of health co-benefits including decreased incidence of sinusitis and hypertension. A study in New Zealand found that residents living in homes that had been retrofitted were less likely to have underweight children, respiratory illnesses, and chronic asthma.


We cannot leave health behind

A green recovery offers a critical opportunity to advance healthier, less polluted communities. Canada should seize this chance to invest in projects that offer dual benefits, offering resilience by both combating climate change and reducing the risk of negative health effects for individuals.