March 11, 2021

By Aline Coutinho and John McNally


Meeting Canadian climate commitments will require significant investment in low-carbon infrastructure and clean technology in the coming decades. The Institute for Sustainable Finance estimates that investments of $90 - $166 billion are needed in order to meet the 2030 emission reduction targets.

Low-carbon infrastructure presents an opportunity to advance climate goals, support economic growth, and offer direct health benefits to community members. Local and regional governments, who own approximately 60% of public infrastructure across Canada, have an opportunity to advance projects that best suit the socioeconomic needs of their communities that will stand for decades.

However, identifying which projects are best positioned to improve health outcomes at the local level requires access to technical software and modelling expertise capable of conducting granular assessments. Developing expertise in using tools, and conducting these assessments, is time and resource intensive. The cost of conducting these assessments can be high for local and regional governments who have competing priorities, and may lack technical experience in using the tools needed in any of the many steps involved.

To ensure health benefits associated with proposed projects can be compared, and that projects with the greatest potential to meet the needs of communities are easily identifiable, stakeholders need simple and accessible tools for evaluating the health benefits arising from improvements in air quality.


Conducting analyses of health impacts is costly

Traditionally, the assessment of how a project impacts health is conducted with a health impact assessment (HIA), a complex, multi-step process involving elaborate procedures, modelling, and tools, which are time and resource intensive. HIAs require a detailed examination of the relationships between elements of the proposed projects and health effects. It can be costly to indiscriminately conduct an HIA for every project under consideration.

To lower these barriers, a range of simplified tools and techniques have been developed. These simplified tools model air quality change due to a project, and the consequent health benefits. However, according to a 2019 study prepared for the US Environmental Protection Agency, the majority of these simplified tools still require the use of specialized software or involve a level of complexity that acts as a barrier to adoption.

It is important to ensure the development of credible, simplified methods and tools that are accessible to analysts from local governments. This is even more crucial for those who may face resource constraints when assessing air quality changes, and the accompanying health impacts brought by projects. These methods and tools would not only expedite decision making, but also save on costs and promote stakeholder participation in this process.


Simplified tools make conducting assessments, well, simpler

There is a plethora of established evidence on the negative health effects associated with air pollution resulting from fossil fuel combustion. The social, economic and public welfare consequences in Canada cost $114 billion each year. Simplified tools can be used as pre-screening instruments that can filter projects with the greatest potential to positively impact health and reduce these costs locally, making the decision to carry on with a project more systematic and cost effective. Using simplified tools during the proposal stage of a project allows stakeholders to identify which projects have the greatest potential to positively impact health within their communities, and ensure resources are allocated towards the most attractive projects.

Simplified air quality tools can ensure projects that best support local health outcomes are advanced by taking local factors into account, from where a project is implemented to which pollutants the project will reduce to how local air quality levels all contribute to the scope and scale of the health benefits that arise. Simplified tools to identify and quantify the actual health co-benefits of projects allows the incorporation of health considerations that are sensitive to the needs of specific communities into the decision-making process. Concrete information that is locally applicable and context-relevant is likely to expedite consensus about whether a given project should go forward to a fulsome appraisal process and receive funding.

Finally, the development of simplified tools allows decision makers, communities and stakeholders to rapidly raise project-specific evidence on the health impact potential of a project. By facilitating the identification and comparison of the type and size of health impacts of different projects, a wide range of stakeholders will be able to rank and advocate for projects that are meaningful to their community needs. This can support the democratization of project identification and advancement, ensuring that contributing to the project selection process is made more accessible. Although simplified tools do not displace the importance of fulsome HIAs in this regard, they leverage the voice of all stakeholders into the proposal stages and appraisal process of a given project. Stakeholders with all sorts of background and community members concerned with the health impacts of a project will be able to advocate for their particular needs in an evidence-based fashion.


Developing simplified air quality tools should be made a priority

Simplified health modelling tools already exist in a range of jurisdictions, including the United States. While there are a few reduced-form tools for conducting assessments that do exist in Canada already, there is the potential to advance a larger number tools and develop a suite of made-in-Canada solutions that improve the accessibility and lower the cost of conducting credible assessments of health impacts. Simplified air quality and health impact modelling tools can help stakeholders of all forms better understand the health benefits associated with climate action. Developing them should be a priority to ensure all Canadians can make informed decisions around creating a sustainable, resilient, and healthier future.