The number of smoggy summer days could be dramatically reduced if a few simple changes to automobile emissions are made, according to a major study released by Canada’s leading environmental organizations.
“You’re talking about a visible improvement in air quality,” said Peter Tabuns, executive director of Greenpeace Canada, which authored the report along with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. “There’s no reason 1,000 people should die in Toronto each year alone because of smog.”
The main thrust is that Canada’s policy on vehicle emissions is not just far behind Europe, but even falling behind the US. The amount of gas vehicles burn per kilometre has not decreased in Canada since the 1980s.
Making matters worse, sales of gas-guzzling SUVs increased from 15,000 to 126,000 per year over 20 years, and because SUVs are still classified as trucks, they are allowed to have significantly higher emissions. If these problems are not fixed, says Tabuns, the health and environmental effects of vehicle emissions that were felt last summer will become even more unbearable.
“The air quality in the cities in Europe are noticeably better than they are in Toronto,” he said. “It’s a lot easier on your lungs, let me tell you.”
The report says Canada should follow California’s lead and introduce new standards by 2004 which would make mandatory a 4.3-litre-per-100-kilometres efficiency for passenger cars—a 50 per cent reduction over current standards.
Adopting California’s standards would also mean ending special exemptions for SUVs, which are responsible for a disproportionate amount of smog-causing emissions.
“There are no technological obstacles here. It’s really a question of political commitment,” said Tabuns.
The other major plank of the report is dramatically cutting back on the amount of a highly dangerous compound in fuels. In fact, removing most sulphur would mean $7 billion saved in health care costs, 2,100 fewer deaths and 11 million fewer incidents of respiratory problems over a 20 year period, according to Health Canada.
“In terms of air quality, removing sulphur is the most important step,” said Tabuns.
Sulphur not only has direct human consequences, but it interferes with catalytic converters in vehicles, which are the main means of reducing dangerous emissions.
Canada has some of the highest sulphur content in its gasoline in the world, largely a result of major oil refiners refusing to update very old equipment. In fact, some Ontario refiners have such poor equipment that Alberta must actually add sulphur to its petroleum before sending it to Ontario.
By following California’s lead and reducing sulphur from as much as 800 parts per million to 30 parts per million, Canada would cut smog by massive amounts and achieve major health benefits.
The auto and oil industry has been actively resisting changes to emissions standards or sulphur content, in large part because they would mean updating equipment.
“In the end, they’ll still be able to produce cars people can afford to buy and they can afford to sell at a profit, but to go from point A to point B means they are going to have to put money in and my guess is that they are wanting to completely exhaust the capital value of the assets before they make a new investment,” said Tabuns. “That might be good for them, but it’s bad news for the population as a whole.”
He says given the “laid-back” approach to lobbying pursued by the Ministry of the Environment, the federal government “will have to feel the ground shift under their feet” to implement these measures.
“One or two summers like the past one or worse could provide some political push to make them move.”