Category Archives: air

Today’s AQHI Has Decreased From 3 To 4

Crossposted from Torontoist.

It’s been about a month now since Toronto (in conjunction with the province and the feds) launched the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) pilot project. And yet, very few Torontonians seem to understand what the AQHI actually means for their health and behaviour on any given day. Given that, a closer look is in order.

Unfortunately, just like Toronto’s air, the closer one looks the less clear things become. Listening to the radio in the morning, it’s easy to get the impression that the AQHI replaces the old Air Quality Index (AQI), which is where we used to get the binary “smog alert/no smog alert” announcements. Not so, Toronto Health tells Torontoist, “The Air Quality Index (smog alert) is a scale that measures the quality of the air based on single highest pollutant, whereas the new Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) measures the combined health risks/effects of multiple pollutants. In other words, the two indices are not comparable and cannot and should not be linked.”

Don’t worry, that doesn’t make a tonne of carbon sense to us either, but basically it means that it’s impossible to say, for example, “a 5 under the new system is equivalent to a smog alert under the old system.” Add to the confusion that, as Mike Smith points out in NOW, a high Air Quality rating actually means we’re experiencing low air quality. “One wonders,” speculates Smith, “if the rather more obvious name, the Pollution Index, was avoided because of its effects on tourism.”

Or perhaps its effects on reelection. The federal government, which is spearheading this initiative, has promised to create “clean air” (which many critics have suggested is a deliberate attempt to try and distract the public from its inaction on the climate crisis). Of course, it’s very hard to convince people the air is clean when they’re experiencing a “smog alert” every other day. Hearing that Air Quality is at a 4 or a 5 makes everything sound much cleaner. On Wednesday last week, for example, the AQHI was at a 3, even though there was a smog alert in effect. The smog alert went unreported by at least one major Toronto radio station, which instead just informed their listeners of the AQHI.

If you’re interested in the specifics of the AQHI 1-10+ scale, there’s a table on the government’s site. Apparently last Wednesday’s smog day represented “ideal conditions for outdoor activities.”

A list of all AQHI numbers reported to date does not appear to be available, but our observation has been that it’s tended to stay around 3-5 so far. Again, that makes some political sense. Just as the American government’s terrorism risk index can never fall below “elevated” (not only is it in the Republican party’s interest to keep its citizens afraid of an attack, it would be a disaster for this administration if an attack took place while the alert level was low), it’s politically disadvantageous for the AQHI to ever rise too high. There’s therefore reason to be at least a bit suspicious of what levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals our government has decided are “safe” for us to breathe.

On the other hand, some individuals are actually more “at risk” of respiratory problems than others, and they’ll hopefully find this new system useful in predicting when they’ll experience the most difficulty breathing. If the system works as it’s supposed to, it could help save lives by giving asthmatics, for example, more warning of when it’s safe for them to go outside.

That being said, ultimately Toronto Public Health says, “it is our intention that the AQHI will replace the existing Air Quality Index (smog alert) once it is fully implemented in Ontario.” A few years after that and maybe we’ll stop using the word “smog” altogether. Is our tinfoil hat on a bit too tight, or is possible that at least one motivation behind the AQHI is to eliminate smog though Orwellian “newspeak” methods, rather than real ones?

Flying: Low Price, High Cost

Crossposted from Torontoist.

Reader Jonathan recently let us know about a trip he took to Ottawa and back via (cue dramatic music) Porter Airlines. That’s right, the airline of the infamous island airport.

It’s no secret that we have been less than enthusiastic about airport expansion, of which Porter Air’s operation has become the most prominent example. That being said, it’s worth noting that Jonathan’s review could not have been more glowing:

Wow! Flying is amazing! I think I might be spoiled forever…Just over two hours after I left my office, I was standing in Ottawa. To give that some context, I left work a little early and got to Ottawa before I normally get out of the office. Compare that with a train trip that takes over 4 hours for the trip alone! That two hours even includes 30 mins I had to kill in a nice lounge with free drinks and wifi.

Actually, we fully expect that his account is more or less typical, and we’ve heard similar stories from others. Not only that, but, as he points out, you would expect an experience so clearly superior to the train to cost way more, right? Not so! “The plane is just $41.70 more for a round-trip than the train,” Jonathan writes. “That’s less than $7 for every hour you save.”

So what’s the problem? If this is such a great service which is clearly filling a need (or, you know, at least the Western “I want it!” definition of need), how come so many people are getting so many bees in so many bonnets?

In fact, it comes down to that all-too-loaded word: cost. What we of course should have said is that Porter Air (and air travel in general) has a relatively low price. The cost, on the other hand, is both hidden and high.

These aren’t abstract, touchy-feely costs either. They’re real economic ones that we’ll all end up paying one way or another. The most blatant of these is the cost of climate change, which air travel contributes to much more than train travel, both because of the extra fuel/energy that’s needed to fly a plane, and also because of the high altitude at which those emissions are released. The Stern report (as everyone is hopefully tired of hearing about) pegged the real cost of not acting to reduce the severity of climate change (it’s already too late to stop it completely) at 3.68 trillion pounds. (Trillion! Pounds!) Stern, along with renowned author George Monbiot and the IPCC have also identified that, in order to avoid the worst of what climate change has to offer, we’ll need to make somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80% reductions in emissions below 1990 levels (that’s significant—always pay attention to the base year when people are talking about reductions) by the year 2050 at the latest (Monbiot suggests 2030).

Either we believe the science or we don’t. If we do, then we’ll quickly come to realize that there’s no room for flights of convenience in a world needing an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (Note also the related but slightly different health and economic costs tied to air quality in Toronto.)

Does that make Jonathan, or others who fly Porter, bad people? We don’t think so. They’re simply making decisions that make sense for them, based on the information they’re presented with. That’s reasonable—that’s what we all do. And the most significant piece of information they have, in this case, is the artificially low price of the plane ticket, which hides its true, high cost. That’s why the idea of using the tax system to send the right price signals to the market is gaining in popularity. In other words, flying, which has a high cost once the externalities are factored in, should be significantly more expensive than taking the train. (This can be done in concert with reductions on other kinds of taxes, so that it’s revenue neutral and more politically palatable.)

In that scenario, individuals will be able to make informed decisions about whether or not they think flying is really worth it. If they do, then fine, but fewer people will. A level of personal freedom will be preserved, and emissions will also be reduced. Unfortunately, of course, this is one of those things that would have to be implemented provincially or federally. Until then, we’ll have to focus on the things that can be done municipally.

An Ally In Nathan

I’ve been pretty critical of the NDP recently. Believe it or not, my motivations are good. I really believe the NDP has a positive role to play in Canadian politics, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why they haven’t been playing it for the past year or so.

Today, I want to give credit where it’s due. This evening I attended a University of Toronto event with Nathan Cullen, the NDP’s environment critic. (Note to the NDP and other parties: that should be environment advocate. Important distinction.) Nathan’s on tour to talk about the amendments that he and members of the Liberal party and the Bloc were able to make to the Conservative piece of #%@! legislation that was originally titled the Clean Air Act. When the NDP first took this bill to committee, I didn’t think they’d get anything of value out of that process. Tonight, I was glad to thank Nathan for proving me wrong.

Unfortunately, whether the government will act on the amended bill or not is still up in the air. When Stephen Harper was in opposition, it was very important to him that the government “respect the will of parliament.” Now, not so much.

Either way, Nathan was very good, not just in content but in tone. By that I mean that not only did he do a good job of expressing what needs to be done in almost exactly the same way I would (it’s strange to hear what you thought were your own soundbites come out of the mouth of someone you’ve never met), he did it in a very positive, reasonable, non-partisan tone. We could use a lot more of that. When I spoke with him afterwards, he seemed genuinely interested in leaning about my candidacy in the last election and what I’d thought of the experience. People like Nathan suggest that our parties could work very well together, and I told him that I hope we will.

Lick Global Warming vs. Cow Farts

Around noon today I sauntered over to the TD Centre courtyard in downtown Toronto to witness the launch of the Lick Global Warming campaign, a partnership of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The event featured people in cow costumes carrying picket signs, and (even more strangely) a 20-minute line full of Bay Street workers waiting for a free small scoop of ice cream in a cup.

I had a fun time trying to imagine what the Ben & Jerry’s boardroom brainstorm would have sounded like.

Ben: Ok, we need to do some sort of good-will PR thing.
Jerry: Let’s see…ice cream….
Ben: …cools you down…
Jerry: …when it’s hot…
Ben: Global Warming!
Jerry: That’s it! That’s so hot!
Ben: You mean cool.
Jerry: Is that what the kids are saying these days?

Or maybe Jerry really cares. The point isn’t to pick on my friends at the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, nor do I want to criticize anyone who makes delicious ice cream, but there’s one thing I find particularly bizarre about this campaign.

Can you spot it? No, it’s not the illustration of Earth in an ice cream cone (though I’m not quite sure what that’s about). And no, it’s not the fact that on the Ben & Jerry’s homepage there’s a flash animation (if you wait a few seconds) of a cow licking an ice cream cone (weird).

What really doesn’t make sense to me — and what I can’t believe wasn’t spotted or addressed by anyone at either organization — is the use of cows as an anti-global warming mascot. Why? Because cow farts cause global warming.

There. I said it.

Cows, though their farts and otherwise, produce large amounts of methane gas, which is the second greatest contributor to global warming after CO2. Some studies have even suggested that in some regions cows contribute more to global warming than cars, while others have concluded that eating meat is just as bad for the climate as driving an SUV.

According to this blog’s first-ever anonymous source, the OCAA has already received several complaints about their partnership with B&J, including the observation that B&J’s products aren’t locally produced, meaning the involvement of long refrigerated-truck trips.

I’m glad to see the climate crisis getting people’s attention, I do think global warming campaigns can and should be fun, and I know I shouldn’t really be criticizing any company that wants to do their part. At the same time, global warming is a complex issue that cannot be easily solved. I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by reducing the whole issue to one paragraph, and then pretending to solve it with one sentence.

People are smarter than that, and deserve to be given more credit.

Ok, I’m done my party-pooping for the day. (And yes, after watching the protesting cows I did grab a delicious ice cream cone. It cheered me up a bit.)

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