Ontario could be avoiding hundreds of smog-related deaths a year – but isn’t. Why aren’t we holding it accountable?
Imagine a jumbo jet crashing into Lake Ontario, killing all 400 people on board. Then imagine a small commuter plane, like those that take off from the Island Airport, crashing into Lake Ontario, killing 50 or so passengers. Which crash – and precipitating problem – deserves more attention from authorities, the media, and the public? The answer, of course, is that they deserve equal scrutiny.
Now, let’s move from fiction to fact.
In 2005, 80 Torontonians were reportedly murdered, 52 of them by handguns. The media dubbed it the “Year of the Gun,” and gave the problem so much attention that all levels of government developed strategies to reduce the number of these tragic deaths. Thankfully, these efforts have paid off, and we’ve seen a significant reduction in gun-related homicides in the city.
In 2005, an estimated 1,700 Torontonians died prematurely because of smog-related illnesses according to a [2007 report](http://www.toronto.ca/health/hphe/pdf/air_and_health_burden_illness.pdf) by Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David McKeown. In 2006, another 1,700 Torontonians died. In 2007, another 1,700; in 2008, another 1,700; and in 2009, another 1,700.
In contrast to action on gun murders, action on reducing smog has been mediocre at best. Two key causes of smog in Toronto are burning coal to make electricity and using gas-burning engines to move people and products around. The province controls electricity production in Ontario and plays a major roll in determining how goods and people move in Toronto. This means Premier Dalton McGuinty can use provincial power to dramatically reduce smog deaths in the city. Unfortunately, the premier has so far failed to take advantage of the powers Ontario has.
To be fair, the province has taken a major step forward in reducing smog by passing the [Green Energy Act](http://www.greenenergyact.ca/Page.asp?PageID=1224&SiteNodeID=202&BL_ExpandID=44). This act is bringing renewable power to Ontario. The province rightly wants this green energy to replace deadly, coal-generated power and says it will shut down the coal stations by 2014. But the Ontario [Clean Air Alliance](http://www.cleanairalliance.org/files/active/0/phaseout%20progress%202010.pdf) argues that there’s more than enough coal-free generation to shut coal plants down today. So why is the province keeping the plants operating, especially when people are guaranteed to die because of the pollution they cause?
Another inexplicable provincial action arrived with the March Ontario budget, when Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan delayed $4 billion in funding for Toronto’s planned transit expansion, known as [Transit City](http://www3.ttc.ca/About_the_TTC/Projects_and_initiatives/Transit_city/index.jsp). Better transit is key for reducing the 440 smog deaths caused by vehicles on the road each year Dr. McKeown noted in a [2007 report](http://www.toronto.ca/health/hphe/pdf/air_pollution_burden_newsrelease.pdf). If we get people out of their cars and onto public transit (as well as walking and cycling), there will be less smog and we will save lives.
It’s a simple equation, one that Premier McGuinty apparently acknowledged when he announced $8 billion in funding for Transit City back in 2007. And it’s one that motivated the City of Toronto to adopt the Transit City Plan.
Indeed, building Transit City will do a lot more than save lives: it will also provide accessible transit to parts of the city that have terrible transit service, prompt intensification along the transit routes – further reducing the need for people to drive in cars – and save money, as businesses won’t have to pay the costs of traffic congestion and taxpayers won’t have to pay the multi-billion dollar health costs of smog.
But all these benefits are now [delayed](http://www.thestar.com/news/ontariobudget/article/785341). According to the province, $4 billion in funding to build Transit City must be moved back by at least five years to help keep the provincial deficit in check. For Torontonians, that means five more years of unnecessary smog deaths.
But it gets even worse. Some mayoral candidates are now using the provincial delay to question the transit expansion plan entirely, claiming that we need to start planning again with either subways or different routes. If these candidates are elected, expect a lot more than five years of continued, unnecessary smog deaths.
Regardless of whether the delay is five years or 20 years, it’s unacceptable. Imagine if an airline company announced that in order to maintain certain expenditure targets, it would delay repairs to jumbo jets that annually crash into Lake Ontario and kill everyone on board. No one, not the media, not the passengers, and definitely not the government, would accept this excuse.
So why is it that the province and the mayoral candidates who want to delay – and perhaps even scuttle – Transit City are not being held to account for the deaths these delays will cause? And why is it that the province isn’t being held to account for not turning off their coal-fired stations today?
Whether a person dies because they were shot by a gun or because dirty air caused a heart attack shouldn’t matter. In both cases, we as a society have a responsibility to do what we can to take away the circumstances that caused these avoidable deaths.
Thankfully, Ontarians can act, even if the province doesn’t. If you live in Ontario, simply pick up the phone, [call your MPP](http://www.ontariotenants.ca/government/mpp.phtml) and tell him or her:
“You have a responsibility to avoid hundreds of unnecessary smog deaths in Toronto every year. That’s why the province must immediately put back $4 billion in provincial funding for Transit City and must immediately put the coal-fired plants on stand-by.”
We owe it to each other, because soon one of those 1,700 people who die annually may be you or someone you know.