This piece is published in partnership with the Smart Prosperity Institute.

Taking action on climate change leads to more livable cities, cleaner air and improvements to human health. It will also form the foundation of a resilient recovery from COVID-19.

Yet governments often fail to consider these benefits when making decisions about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and drive clean growth. This leads to the benefits of climate action remaining invisible or being undervalued. It also reduces the ability of communities to make informed decisions that best suit their local needs and context — a critical part of both a green recovery and sustainable climate action in the decades to come.

Reaching net-zero emissions is an ambitious goal that recent federal policy and legislative changes have made increasingly realistic. At the community level, most of the benefits experienced from taking climate action are not directly climate-related. Rather, they will be felt most strongly and seen most visibly as cleaner water and air, household cost savings, job creation and health improvements. In climate policy, these additional or supplementary advancements that arise as a result of reducing emissions are known as co-benefits.

Communities looking to reduce their carbon footprint should ensure that they are appropriately taking these co-benefits into account, as they offer an opportunity to advance solutions that best align with other pressing needs. Policy design that simply examines greenhouse gas emissions reduced per dollar spent will cause communities to miss out on a host of potentially beneficial opportunities.

Carbon pricing, a tool that only considers GHG emission reductions, is a good example of how this design feature impacts decision-making. Suppose there are five options for investment that all have identical costs and reduce an identical amount of emissions: Building more urban parks and greenspaces; improving energy efficiency in low-income housing; buying offsets from outside Canada; transitioning a remote community from diesel electricity generation to renewables; and electrifying commuter buses in cities with poor air quality.

If climate solutions are designed in a way that captures these co-benefits, climate action can be an effective way of creating healthier communities, a stronger economy and a more inclusive society in both a green recovery and beyond.

If we take a tunnel vision perspective and only look at the costs and the potential for emissions reductions, we might see all of these approaches as equal. After all, if we are only looking at carbon emissions, the other benefits each solution offers will not be counted or valued. But these co-benefits differ dramatically for each solution: Some improve air quality, which lowers incidence of childhood asthma and respiratory disease. Some create more green space in cities, whose value has grown more pronounced during lockdowns. Some will improve energy security for remote communities by reducing reliance on diesel shipments. Others lower energy bills for low-income communities, putting valuable dollars back in the pockets of vulnerable households. And others have no co-benefits to Canada’s economy at all.

Community members across the world are already asking for these co-benefits to health, nature and the economy to be integrated much more substantively into decision-making. Climate Assembly UK, a citizens’ group brought together to lend a democratic eye toward developing net-zero pathways for the United Kingdom, identified that maximizing co-benefits should be at the heart of any community’s approach to decarbonization. In practice, this means starting to strongly consider how actions to reduce emissions impact a broader suite of factors: Human health, gender and racial equity, job creation, technology development, economic growth and nature conservation, to name just a few.

The economic case for including these values is clear. In the case of health, a 2019 analysis of clean air regulations in the United States identified that 50 – 60% of the overall monetized benefits communities experienced resulted from health benefits linked to clean air regulations. Recent research from Smart Prosperity has explored how investments in low-carbon infrastructure, nature-based solutions and a host of other projects championed in a green economic recovery can lead to health benefits. These include reductions in incidence and severity of diseases, or improvements in health equity to provide more support to vulnerable communities. In a post-pandemic world, ensuring that actions to reduce emissions also maximize benefits for air quality and health is a smart policy objective.

Local and regional governments stand to gain the most from driving forward co-benefits for health, nature and the economy. Integrating co-benefits into decision making allows each community to determine how a low-carbon transition can most positively impact them. Cities and communities can use climate action to advance other policy priorities, such as addressing poor air quality, tackling energy poverty or conserving green spaces. This lens offers a path forward for each community to design climate strategies that make climate action work for their needs, and advance their visions for improving the quality of life of their citizens.

Advancing climate action is an opportunity to maximize the co-benefits that communities care about most. If climate solutions are designed in a way that captures these co-benefits, climate action can be an effective way of creating healthier communities, a stronger economy and a more inclusive society in both a green recovery and beyond.

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John McNally is a Research Associate at Smart Prosperity Institute.

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Teslin Augustine is a Research Associate at Smart Prosperity Institute.

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Mike Moffatt is the Institute’s Senior Director of Policy and Innovation.