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Trevor Hancock: Carbon tax is good for our health

Doug Ford, the new premier of Ontario, has just joined the ranks of the political dinosaurs — chief amongst them U.S.
Rush-hour traffic backs up along the Trans-Canada Highway at the McKenzie interchange. Climate change caused by manmade carbon emissions will inevitably take a toll on human lives, Trevor Hancock writes.

Doug Ford, the new premier of Ontario, has just joined the ranks of the political dinosaurs — chief amongst them U.S. President Donald Trump and his cabinet, as well as several other provincial premiers — who downplay or ignore the environmental, social, economic and health impacts of climate change.

Ford announced that one of his first acts would be to cancel Ontario’s cap-and-trade system and to challenge the federal government’s carbon tax.

Ford’s spin on the story — like his twin in the White House — is that a carbon tax is a job-killer and bad for families. But, in fact, a 2011 UN Environment Program report found the transition to a green economy would result in at least as many if not more jobs than “business as usual,” while a 2016 report from Canada’s Green Economy Network found that investing in renewable energy would create about one million new jobs, and a 2014 study by Regional Economic Modeling, Inc. found that a revenue-neutral carbon tax in the U.S. would create jobs and increase GDP.

As for being bad for families, while the carbon tax is not a job-killer, the high-carbon economy that Ford and his ilk support is a people-killer — and how is that good for families? This is because carbon emissions cause climate change, and there are significant health impacts from this.

The World Health Organization notes: “Climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.”

Canada is already experiencing the health effects of climate change, which include the physical and mental-health impacts of large forest fires, urban heat events, floods, droughts and — in the North — disappearing sea ice, melting permafrost and changing animal migration patterns. Moreover, as Health Canada notes, “climate change impacts on health will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, including the poor, elderly, and the young and those who are chronically ill,” as well as the “socially disadvantaged and people living in vulnerable geographical areas” such as the North.

In addition, air pollution is a major cause of death, and has a large economic impact. Globally, general outdoor air pollution — much of it due to fossil-fuel combustion — was responsible for more than three million premature deaths in 2010, according to the Global Burden of Disease study. Almost 90 per cent of those deaths occur in middle- and low-income countries, the 2017 report of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health noted.

In Canada, a report from the Canadian Medical Association estimated that 21,000 Canadians would die as a result of air pollution in 2008. In addition, there would be 11,000 hospital admissions, 92,000 emergency department visits and 620,000 visits to a doctor’s office for treatment.

Moreover, our supposedly economically wise leaders also ignore or discount the economic costs of these health impacts, and the economic benefits of preventing air pollution. For climate change, the WHO says the direct-damage costs to health is estimated to be between $2 billion and $4 billion US annually by 2030, while the CMA estimates the health-care costs alone in Canada due to outdoor air pollution in 2010 would amount to $438 million, while productivity losses would be $688 million.

Failure to implement a carbon tax and take other steps to rapidly and dramatically reduce carbon emissions and associated air pollution due to fossil-fuel combustion leads to major health problems, globally and in Canada. Clearly, Ford and others of his persuasion don’t care about people dying in other parts of the world, or even in their own backyards; they prefer short-term gain, and don’t mind inflicting long-term pain to get it.

But for those of us who do care, carbon taxes — while not the whole answer — are an important part of the strategy. Just as we raised taxes on tobacco as part of a much broader public-health campaign, so, too, we need to raise taxes on fossil fuels — which some people call “the new tobacco.”

By doing so, we can help to reduce the health impacts of climate change around the world, reduce local air pollution and create jobs in the emerging clean-energy sector. So wake up, Premier Ford, and smell the clean air.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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