Melissa Lem: Vancouver’s buildings policy update lays the foundation for cool and clean indoor air

Opinion: Not only will new indoor air quality safeguards immediately protect health as residential density increases near major arterials, but they will also increase our resilience against the effects of climate change we know are coming

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This month, something historic happened at Vancouver City Council. One would hardly know it given that only 19 speakers from the public registered to speak during the meeting — full disclosure, I was one of them — compared to the throng of over 200 who are currently debating density, shadows and subways in the Broadway Plan. Yet its implications for the future viability and wellbeing of our city are just as important.

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Passed by the majority of councillors, the four Climate Emergency: Building Emissions Reduction Reports introduced several ground-breaking policies that will improve our health and tackle the gargantuan source of close to 60 per cent of Vancouver’s carbon pollution: natural gas that powers our buildings. Canada’s very first hard and declining cap on carbon emissions from existing large commercial buildings will be enacted in 2026. First-in-North-America provisions to limit embodied carbon in new construction begin in 2025, along with mandatory cooling systems favouring electric heat pumps. By 2023, MERV 13 filters, which remove 85 per cent of fine particulate air pollutants, will be installed in every new multi-family and commercial building.

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Unsatisfied with fuel-neutral language that left the door open for “renewable” natural gas — widely viewed by environmentalists as a boondoggle to continue to deliver majority fracked natural gas in gas lines to elbow in to a green transition —  councillors astutely voted in favour of an amendment prioritizing electrification. Armed with increasing evidence about the climate and air quality risks of gas stoves, staff were also directed to explore banning gas cooking and fireplaces from new homes.

These new directions are a bonanza of measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, keep air pollution out of our homes and make our buildings — where we spend over 90 per cent of our time — safer. And they are exactly the framework our city needs right now for a healthy future.

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Despite government promises to the contrary, carbon emissions continue to rise in B.C., largely driven by massive, controversial subsidies to the fossil fuel industry that make it artificially attractive for us to power our homes with natural gas. Unfortunately, methane, the main component of natural gas, has also been making headlines as a climate killer. As a super-pollutant with over 80 times the short-term global warming effect of carbon dioxide, it’s a fact that more gas use means more leaks. It’s also a fact that existing buildings generate the vast majority of carbon pollution — which is why it’s so important to deliver regulations that eliminate natural gas from both the old and new.

Meanwhile, the imminent one-year anniversary of the June 2021 heat dome that killed almost 600 British Columbians, followed by weeks of air-quality advisories from wildfire smoke, make it clear that cool and clean indoor air must be recognized as a human right. Just last month, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment released a new Traffic-Related Air Pollution report describing the alarming array of negative impacts of vehicle exhaust, from heart and lung disease to cancer, developmental delays, depression and anxiety. Not only will new indoor air quality safeguards immediately protect health as residential density increases near major arterials, but they will also increase our resilience against the effects of climate change we know are coming.

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For a mayor and council who narrowly agreed to uphold the 2022 natural gas ban in new low-rise residential buildings less than a year ago, last week’s vote seemed a rare moment of climate unity. But the battle for climate-proof buildings is not yet won. In 2023 city staff will introduce proposals for renewable energy retrofits to existing homes that will spark much more debate, and generate even deeper potential carbon cuts. Loopholes must be closed to ensure that best-practice air filtration and renewable energy in new buildings are carried forward by subsequent owners. After October’s municipal elections, I hope that Vancouver’s newly elected leaders will vote with just as much vision to prioritize healthy homes, no matter what the political pressures. In a province awash in heat, smoke and flooding, we must continue to build upon the solid foundation City Council has laid today — because this will save lives now and for years to come.

Dr. Melissa Lem is a Vancouver family physician, president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and a clinical assistant professor at the University of B.C.

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