Union calls for a legal responsibility on employers to address a crisis in U.K. air pollution

BWTUC logoThe Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council (BWTUC) is the Southwest London arm of the Trades Union Congress and a founding supporter of the Greener Jobs Alliance. The BWTUC has undertaken a campaign against toxic air, and argues that employers are the root cause of diesel emissions –  from their transport fleets as well as the individual  journeys to and from work made by workers.  As part of its campaign against what it calls the “number one public health issue”, BWTUC will help local unions to carry out monitoring of pollution levels where they work, and is also producing online training modules which will be available at the Greener Jobs Alliance website after a May 27 launch.  Finally, it is advocating for a Clean Air Act, as stated in the  Greener Jobs Alliance Top 10 Election Demands  : #10: “ Introduce a Clean Air Act to tackle air pollution once and for all. Place a clear legal responsibility on employers and businesses to address air quality and develop a network of low emission zones in pollution hot spots.”

The U.K. government has addressed the issue of roadside air pollution in Improving air quality in the UK: tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities: Draft UK Air Quality Plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide  (May 2017).  Unlike the BWTUC, the government clearly sees pollution as an individual, not employer, responsibility.  “The UK Government is clear that any action to improve air quality must not be done at the expense of local businesses and residents. Therefore local authorities must work closely with local people to create an approach which works for them. Everyone has a role to play in helping to address NOx by considering how they can reduce emissions through their day-to-day activities, for example by choosing cleaner vehicles.”  The government does propose incentives for low carbon fuel vehicle fleets, and for clean busses for commuting, but the plan is controversial and inadequate – see “UK’s new air pollution plan dismissed as ‘weak’ and ‘woefully inadequate‘” and  “Air pollution plan: sacrificing the nation’s health to save an election campaign“, both of which appeared in The Guardian on May 5.

double decker busAccording  to a BWTUC press release , the people of Battersea/Wandsworth have a lot at stake: “In 2016 Putney High St had the dubious distinction of being the most polluted road in the whole of Europe.  By law hourly levels of Nitrogen Dioxide must not exceed 200 micrograms per cubic metre more than 18 times in one year. In fact, the hourly limit was exceeded over 1,200 times in 2016. In January 2017 the standard was breached 11 times in one day.” …. “In April, the Wandsworth Guardian quoted a report that showed 29 schools in the borough located in areas exceeding the safe legal limit.”

Health Impacts of Cap and Trade policies on California’s disadvantaged communities

Acting on a December 2016 Executive Order of Governor Gerry Brown, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment released the first in a series of reports which will examine the impact of the state’s climate change programs on communities designated as “disadvantaged”.  The February report,  Tracking and Evaluation of Benefits and Impacts of Greenhouse Gas Limits in Disadvantaged Communities: Initial Report   measuring the effects of  the Air Resources Board’s Cap-and-Trade Program, which regulates greenhouse gas emissions from industrial facilities and other sources.  The report is largely based on 2014 emissions data, and warns that “limited data does not yet allow for comprehensive analysis of the impacts of Cap-and-Trade on disadvantaged communities”.   Initial findings however, are that  major industrial facilities are disproportionately located in disadvantaged communities;  there is a moderate correlation between GHG and other air pollutants, with refineries showing the strongest correlation.   California maintains  a planning and enforcement tool,  CalEnviroScreen, the “ first comprehensive, statewide environmental health screening tool” in the U.S.  In late January, California Air Resources Board   announced the appointment of its first Assistant Executive Officer for Environmental Justice, with a mandate to ensure that environmental justice and tribal concerns are considered in air pollution policy-making and decision- making.

Canadian government announces a phase-out of “traditional” coal-fired electricity by 2030

On November 21, the federal Environment Minister announced  that the four remaining provinces with coal-fired electricity  (Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) must  speed up the their emissions reduction targets. All traditional coal-fired units (i.e. those without carbon capture and storage)  will be required to meet a performance standard of 420 tonnes of carbon dioxide per gigawatt hour by no later than 2030, and performance standards must be developed  for new units to ensure they are built using efficient technology.  Details are set out in a Backgrounder  .  To allow for flexibility, Equivalency Agreements can be negotiated under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act , and both Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan are pursuing such agreements.  Nova Scotia, which announced  on November 21 that  it would  implement a cap and trade system which would  meet or exceed the federal emissions reduction target , will be allowed to continue to use coal in high-demand winter months even after 2030, (with no  specific date set yet for full compliance) .  Saskatchewan, which relies heavily on carbon capture and sequestration technology to meet its recent emissions reduction plan, is “displeased”  about the coal phase-out plan, according to a CBC report .  Alberta has already announced its own plans   for a coal phase-out by 2030, promising  support for workers and communities.  See the “Liberals present plan to phase out coal-powered electricity by 2030” CBC (Nov. 21) for a good overview.

 What does this mean for coal workers?  Currently, coal-fired power  generated at 35 plants represents over 70% of emissions in Canada’s electricity sector, but provides  only 11% of our  electricity.  The coal industry employs approximately 42,000 direct and indirect workers.   In “Canada’s rejection of coal will clear the air but impact workers and power bills” , the CBC (Nov. 22) examines the likely higher  electricity bills in store for consumers, and  the likely job losses.  The CBC article quotes Warren Mabee, a researcher with the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Climate Change project and the associate director of the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy: he states that many workers in coal mines will be laid off  “while others will shift to extracting metallurgical coal, which is used in the steel-making process.”  It is important to note that the government press release explicitly promises:“ The Government of Canada will work with provinces and labour organizations to ensure workers affected by the accelerated phase-out of traditional coal power are involved in a successful transition to the low-carbon economy of the future.”

Much of the government’s motivation for its initiative comes down to the health benefits of removing pollutants of coal-fired electricity – carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, mercury and other heavy metals .  The Pembina Institute, along with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Canadian Public Health Association   and others, released   Out with the coal, In with the new: National benefits of an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired power  on November 21.  The report estimates that a  national coal phase-out by 2030 would prevent  1,008 premature deaths, 871 ER visits, and health outcomes valued at nearly $5 billion (including health and lower productivity costs) between 2015 and 2035.  The Pembina Institute reacted to the government announcement, calling it “timely” and “necessary .  Clean Energy Canada responded with  Quitting coal will drive clean growth and cut pollution.   BlueGreen Canada, which includes the United Steelworkers union, recently published the  Job Growth in Clean Energy report, which recognizes the world-wide decline of the coal industry, and states that, “if properly supported now, Alberta’s renewable energy sector will create enough jobs to absorb the coal labour force”.

Canada promises action to implement the Kigali agreement on HFC’s

The agreement reached  in Kigali, Rwanda  on October 15 2016, to regulate the use of the hydrochlorofluorocarbons ( HFC’s)  in air conditioners and refrigerators,  is expected to lead to the reduction of the equivalent of 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and “is the single largest contribution the world has made towards keeping  the global temperature rise ‘well below’ 2 degrees Celsius”, according to the UNEP Press release about the agreement.   The 197 countries which had previously been party to the Montreal Protocol reached a compromise, under which developed countries will start to phase down HFC’s by 2019.  The deadline for some developing countries to  freeze their HFC’s consumption levels is 2024, and some  of the world’s hottest countries (India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) will have the most lenient deadlines, to freeze HFC use by 2028 and reduce it to about 15 percent of 2025 levels by 2047.  Read the New York Times report here ,  or the National Observer report here  , and for background, an August NYT article, “How bad is your air conditioner for the planet?“.  For a legal perspective, see “Cutting HFC’s under the Montreal Protocol – A few thoughts” from the Legal Planet blog of UCLA Berkeley.

The Kigali agreement is  seen as a powerful positive symbol: “It is a clear statement by all world leaders that the green transformation started in Paris is irreversible and unstoppable.”  But though it is seen as a much stronger commitment than the Paris Agreement, it also  requires ratification by two-thirds of the parties to come into force, and may not be “unstoppable”.    According to Climate Central, ” American experts on international environmental law say ratifying the new HFC agreement would almost certainly require a two-thirds vote from the Senate”. In other words, even more is now riding on the U.S. election on November 8.   A Globe and Mail article on October 16  expanded on the brief government press release ,  quoting the Canadian Environment and Climate Change Minister, who pledged: “Ottawa will adopt regulations to reduce the use of the chemicals in the coming years. The government will provide rules and incentives for the destruction of existing HFCs.”

More proof that green buildings are better for workers

The health impact of  green workplaces was the subject of a new article,   The Impact of Working in a Green Certified Building on Cognitive Function and Health  , by researchers at the  Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Researchers studied 109 workers at 10 buildings and found that employees who worked in certified green buildings had higher cognitive function scores, fewer sick building symptoms and higher sleep quality scores than those working in non-certified buildings.  The research was sponsored by United Technologies.  For an overview of ongoing research at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health , go to its Nature, Health and the Built Environment website . Other related information is available at the World Green Building Council’s “Better Places for People” website .

From a management point of view, an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Air Pollution making office workers less productive”  (September 29) reports on the effect of air pollution on call-center workers at Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency. The authors conclude that these office  workers are 5%–6% more productive when air pollution levels are rated as “good” (an Air Quality Index of 0–50) versus when they are rated as unhealthy (an Air Quality Index of 150–200). Productivity was measured by completed calls each day, length of breaks, and time logged in.

All this points to the importance of green building.  World Green Building Week  began on September 26, 2016 – preceded by an agreement amongst the national green building councils from 10 countries (including Canada)  to adopt zero net carbon certification programs by the end of 2017.  See the World Green Building Council press release for a description of the meetings, including the definition of “zero net carbon” (ZNC)  as advanced by the architectural network, Architecture 2030   .