Cleaning the Air in Your Neighbourhood

March 7, 2004

By Michael Jessen

Air and life have had a long co-operative relationship. The former makes the latter possible. Our need for air is absolute and primal.

Air quality depends on the interaction between life and the atmosphere, what goes in and what gets taken out.

We have slowly acknowledged and ameliorated many of the sources of human-caused air pollution -- industrial smoke stacks, cigarette smoke, leaded gasoline, open fires, and some dangerous chemicals. The stark reality is that about 60,000 Americans still die every year from air pollution. In Canada, the number is about 16,000.

We are rapidly learning that the gases our machines are exhaling are altering the constituents of our atmosphere so dramatically that the Earth's climate is changing as a result. Abrupt climate change could in 20 years result in a global catastrophe claiming millions of lives in wars and natural disasters.

This bleak picture is painted by Global Business Network ( chairman Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, co-head of GBN's consulting practice. Their report (An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security, available on the GBN web site) was commissioned by the U.S. Pentagon to give a worst case scenario of the effects of abrupt climate change.

Air knows no boundaries; it moves freely around the Earth. It is shared by all of us.

"Pollution in the eastern United States can go in four or five days to Europe and in a week it goes from Europe to South Asia," says Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography ( at the University of California. "This is fast transport which converts a local problem into a regional and global problem."

Ramanathan led the 1999 research that identified what was dubbed the "Asian Brown Cloud," a blanket of chemicals and dust from cars, aerosols and agricultural and industrial waste across most of South Asia. That body of pollution is now threatening to engulf the Middle East and make the planet a drier place, the Indian environmental scientist said recently. (For further details, see

One of the most disturbing clues about what air pollution means to our health was recently discovered by Arden Pope and George Thurston of New York University. They found that the risk of dying from lung cancer from breathing soiled air was about equal to that of living with a smoker. With every 10-microgram increase in invisible air pollution of the sort produced by coal-burning power plants and diesel vehicles, they found an 8 percent increase in the death rate from lung cancer. Their research was published in the March 2002 Journal of the American Medical Association ( They conclude that long-term exposure to combustion-related fine particulate air pollution is an important environmental risk factor for cardiopulmonary and lung cancer mortality.

Since clean air is so important to humans both for basic life processes and to avoid damaging health effects, maintaining clean air should be a cornerstone of any and all municipal policies. After all, no one wants to kill their neighbour, do they?

What is a community to do? What follows is a list of suggestions garnered from various municipalities and other sources. I'll deal first with recommendations affecting what we put into the air. They are in no particular order of importance.

· Many communities, including Nelson, have adopted bylaws banning outdoor open fires. It is time to expand these bylaws into the rural areas of regional districts surrounding these progressive municipalities. Remember that smoke knows no boundaries. If your city or town hasn't banned the practice of burning brush, leaves, and garbage in backyards, make this a priority.

· In a move to reduce air pollution and save fuel, the City of Kelowna ( has adopted an Engine Idling Policy governing all vehicles within the City fleet. All City employees driving municipal vehicles are being encouraged to turn vehicles off when waiting more than three minutes, unless the vehicle is stopped in traffic or the engine is used to power other equipment. Research has shown that idling a vehicle for more than 10 seconds wastes fuel and harms the vehicle engine.

· Wood stoves are common in many communities, but hardly any have bylaws requiring that any home sold that uses wood as a heating source must have the appliance and chimney upgraded to meet current low emission and safety standards. Such a bylaw could save up to 30% on wood costs for the homeowner, reduce air pollution by up to 90%, and undoubtedly save lives by reducing house fires caused by faulty appliances and chimneys.

· Municipalities should lead by example. Converting all or part of their vehicle fleet to biodiesel, a renewable, vegetable-based fuel that can be used in any diesel engine with no modifications. It is most commonly made from crops like canola and soy, both of which grow abundantly in Canada. This country's first public biodiesel station just opened in Unionville, Ontario (see Operated by Topia Energy of Ottawa, biodiesel at the pump costs about the same as regular gasoline.

· The City of Vancouver intends to include special planning rules for new developments in southeast False Creek that would give a break to developers that encourage car sharing. City engineer Dale Bracewell said it is one way to encourage a new development to be less car-centered. The Co-operative Auto Network, Vancouver's non-profit car-sharing society, now has 1,300 members and owns 69 cars. It generally costs about $15,000 to build an underground parking stall. In return for permission to build fewer parking stalls, developers can buy cars for the co-op and encourage their residents to join.

· The City of London, England charges vehicle owners entering the downtown core of London ( Congestion charging is a way of ensuring that those using valuable and congested road space make a financial contribution. It encourages the use of other modes of transport and is also intended to ensure that, for those who have to use the roads, journey times are quicker and more reliable. The London scheme requires drivers to pay £5 per day if they wish to continue driving in central London during the scheme‘s hours of operation.

· A community's regulatory tools, including bylaws, zoning, building and development permits, licenses, and standards can be used to influence community activities that keep the air clean. It wouldn't hurt to have clean air enshrined as an objective in the Official Community Plan or Regional Growth Study. Education and awareness initiatives are a necessary complement to these policy tools in order to encourage public readiness to accept change.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Earth's average temperature rose 0.6° Celsius. Projections for further increases in the twenty-first century vary considerably, from a minimum of 1.4° Celsius to a maximum of 5.8° Celsius. The increase will depend upon the level of stabilization of carbon emissions, the pace of de-carbonization of the global economy, and the patterns of demographic and economic development. These are areas where communities have a role to play. For instance:

· The community should lead by example. First and foremost, it must develop a greenhouse gas reduction strategy. It should develop an energy audit of its operations and then plan to reduce reliance where possible on fossil fuels. It should ensure its buildings and equipment reduce energy use where efficient and possible.

· Communities controlling their own electrical utilities should provide incentives for residents and businesses to reduce energy use through the replacement of incandescent lightbulbs with highly- efficient, long-lasting compact fluorescent bulbs. This alone can reduce energy bills by 30% or more while simultaneously preventing the release of thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide pollution. Incentives could also be given to residents to encourage purchase of energy efficient appliances such as Energy Star ( rated refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, heating, cooling and ventilation equipment, dishwashers, and computers and other office equipment.

· The community should adopt policies and enact bylaws and regulations that promote clean energy -- generally defined as energy efficiency and use of fuels with little adverse effect on climate and air quality. Energy efficiency reduces bills for residences and businesses, freeing up money for local spending while improving quality of life. Most of this money stays in the community and may turn over several times.

· Communities should "green" their fleets. Implemented wisely, many cost effective and practical actions will not adversely impact the day-to-day operations of local government. Measures include: "right-sizing" vehicle fleets by downsizing and eliminating vehicles; optimizing vehicle travel, operation, and maintenance; substituting other travel modes, or reducing the need to travel; purchasing fuel efficient, alternatively fuelled, and hybrid electric vehicles.

The City of Regina, Saskatchewan has demonstrated that energy management is an important part of sound overall financial management. A Canadian leader in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the city has already successfully reduced emissions from its internal operations to 9% below 1988 levels, which translates into a reduction of about 10,000 tonnes of GHG emissions annually. (See for further information.)

Regina took two major steps to reduce GHG emissions in its municipal operations:

· it established a formal Energy Management Program for all city operations with appropriate administrative staff, and

· It set up an "internal bank", called the Special Initiatives Fund, from which municipal departments could borrow against the city's reserves to undertake energy efficiency retrofits.

Regina's Energy Management Program addresses all areas of the city's corporate GHG emissions -- including efficient lighting, variable-speed drives at pumping stations, power factor corrections, reduced building temperatures, fleet conversion to natural gas, and installation of high efficiency furnaces. Following are some major results of Regina's energy initiatives:

· Improving building energy efficiency (including sports facilities) and electrical system enhancements have reduced GHG emissions by 1,656 tonnes per year;

· Street lighting conversion to efficient, cost-effective high pressure sodium lights has yielded a GHG emission reduction of 5,182 tonnes per year;

· Changes to water supply systems in the form of pipeline twinning, variable-speed pumps, operational efficiencies and a water utility efficiency improvement program have cut 3,898 tonnes of GHG emissions per year;

· Sewer and wastewater system improvements have provided annual emission reductions of 2,917 tonnes of GHGs;

· The deployment of 79 natural gas vehicles in Regina's civic fleet -- including fleet vehicles for transit and public works -- are reducing GHG emissions across the city. Natural gas vehicles emit 26% fewer GHG emissions at the tailpipe than the same vehicles that run on regular gasoline. Previously, the conversion of 60 civic vehicles to natural gas, and the installation of related fuelling facilities, were projected to reduce GHG emissions by 250 tonnes per year and save about $80,000 annually; and

· Participation in the annual Commuter Challenge events, and encouraging municipal employees to car-pool as a way to make fewer vehicle trips.

While communities can do a lot to improve their own operations, they should never forget their ability to lobby for change at other levels or even in other lands.

Currently, the World Bank is contemplating what to do with the Final Report of the Extractive Industries Review entitled Striking a Better Balance ($FILE/Volume%20I%20Final%20EIR%20Report.pdf) which recommends the bank phase out support for coal operations immediately and oil by 2008.

Dr. Emil Salim, former Minister of the Environment for Indonesia, chaired the Review. In reasserting these recommendations to World Bank President James Wolfensohn, Dr. Salim said: "My recommendation to phase out of financing coal and oil extraction is based on my conviction that the World Bank Group should play a leading role in accelerating the growth and use of renewable energy throughout the world. It is crucially important for the WBG as a global institution to immediately increase support for renewable energies and help the world de-link energy use from greenhouse gases in order to sustain life in the world."

It wouldn't hurt if every city and town council would endorse Dr. Salim's EIR report and so inform the World Bank.

Air must again be elevated to its rightful number one priority. Clean air is the most important human right and responsibility. As David Suzuki has stated, it should be "the reference point from which all decisions flow."

Michael Jessen is a Nelson writer and consultant on sustainability issues. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at His Zero Waste Solutions business web site is found at

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