By Kelly Lau
Working as physicians in a pandemic has taught us important lessons in managing a health crisis. Accurate data reporting, frequent updates, and reevaluation of our policies are critical for tackling disease spread.
Meanwhile, ignoring science and passively waiting for the crisis to pass are deadly alternatives. Policies and bills guided by science have been instrumental in guiding us through this pandemic.
The same logic extends to the next existential health crisis that we have yet to manage appropriately: climate change. This perilous warming of our planet and continuous destruction of our ecosystems is recognized as the greatest health threat of the 21st century.
Already in 2018, exposure to air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for 7,100 premature deaths and $53.5 billion in health-related costs in Canada. Legislation guided by scientific experts grounded by evidence is needed to truly address climate risks.
So what is Canada’s response to the climate crisis? Bill C-12, a proposed legislation by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government that aims for zero net emissions by 2050. This target is certainly a step in the right direction; however, its approach is deeply flawed and shows that our federal government has learned little from COVID-19 when it comes to treating this health crisis.
To prevent spread of COVID 19, decisive early policies for disease control are found to be the most cost effective and successful. The same strategy goes for climate change. Earlier actions will prevent us from paying higher costs down the line.
Our best chance for a liveable planet would be to keep below 1.5° C of warming, as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By continuing to wait on climate change, pushing targets to 2030 to another government and another year, the human costs from climate change continue to rise.
Notably, Bill C-12 includes loopholes that justify no action to be taken at all in terms of emissions reductions. For instance, the emissions target for 2030 in the bill is not based on 2010 levels, as required by the IPCC. As it stands, Canada’s targets are based on reductions of a future projection of 815 megatonnes in 2030. If all countries used similar targets to Canada, we would be heading toward a catastrophic five degrees of warming.
To manage COVID-19, we have daily updates on cases and outbreaks. By contrast, in response to climate change, the first milestone year set by Bill C-12 is nine years away, the span of at least two governments. A change in parties could get rid of the legislation altogether if no part of the bill is legally binding.
For example, when Canada signed onto the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, the agreements were only binding under international law and Canada was one of the first signatories to withdraw. The timeline for action on climate change, given the exponential risk, is completely inadequate.
To effectively manage the climate crisis, we young physicians have the following asks:
Set 2025 as the first milestone year.
Ensure all greenhouse-gas-emissions reduction targets are legally binding, and increase the 2030 reduction target to 55 percent.
Set 2040 as the national greenhouse-gas-emissions target for net zero.
Establish three-year carbon budgets and minimum standards for mandatory reporting and planning, with independent oversight and legal consequences for not staying within the budgets.
These are ambitious targets to meet the needs of critical times, but collective efforts that are grounded in science and research is how we save lives. From COVID-19, we saw how fast governments were able to mobilize and organizations were able to restructure and change if needed. These amendments to Bill C-12 could be the opportunity to make Canada a leader in a healthy recovery, both from COVID-19 and from environmental catastrophe.