Telecommuting key to better health, environment: report

A new report on the effects of climate change on health, and Canada's response to that threat, suggests cutting the commute to work as a way to improve both the health of Canadians and that of the planet.

'Telecommute centres' could keep work social while reducing trips downtown, says a B.C. researcher

It's great that public transit is a popular option for Ottawa commuters, says researcher Trevor Hancock, but telecommuting would be an even better option for human health and the planet. (Susan Burgess)

Telecommuting could be key to reducing Ottawa's ecological footprint and could improve our health at the same time, according to the co-author of a new report on climate change and health.

Researchers from around the world, including Canada, have begun reporting annually in The Lancet medical journal about the world's response to climate change and the effect on human health, and Trevor Hancock — a professor of public health at the University of Victoria — is in Ottawa for the release of the Canadian data and recommendations. 

One of those recommendations is enhanced support for telecommuting to cut greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

Ottawa already less reliant on cars than other cities

That's especially relevant to Ottawa, Hancock said, because the city has already had success in getting people to ditch their cars for the commute to work. About 68 per cent of commuters get to work in a private vehicle, fewer than any major city in the country, according to Statistics Canada data cited in the report.

While it's hoped that light rail will reduce those numbers even further, cutting the commute entirely would be even better, Hancock said.

"If you look at the sort of work that many people do today, and this would certainly apply here for the federal government, how many people actually need to be in their office five days a week?" Hancock said. 

'Let's look at 21st-century solutions'

Working from home is socially isolating, Hancock said, so he recommends the creation of telecommute centres equipped with daycares, coffee shops and community centres. They'd be gathering places for employees of all kinds to work at least some days of the week.

Instead of driving downtown, "you could walk or bike to a local telecommute centre that was 15 minutes away," Hancock said. Spending less time in a car would be good for mental health and reduce the risk of people being injured in car crashes, while also reducing air pollution, he said.

As for who would pay, Hancock suggested public money could be redirected from other projects, such as a highway interchange being built in Victoria to speed the commute downtown.

"If they had taken that 86 million dollars and built eight $10-million telecommute centres out in the suburbs, it would have been a much more efficient use of public money," Hancock said. "If we're going to spend public money, let's not waste it on 19th and 20th-century solutions. Let's look at 21st-century solutions."

Alex Munter, CEO of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, says the recommendations of the new climate change and health report mirror the hospital's existing priorities for kids' health. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Air pollution from coal, wildfires also a concern

The report also calls on Canada to move faster to shut down coal-fired electricity generation, which is still used in four provinces, by 2030. Doing so would reduce death and illness from air pollution as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, researchers say.

Researchers also recommend efforts to mitigate the health effects of weather disasters linked to climate change, such as the wildfires that have swept Canada's western provinces in recent years. They note that wildfire smoke is associated with more physician visits for asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, and even slightly reduced birth weight among infants exposed in utero.

Diet also must change

Switching to a diet higher in fruits and vegetables with less meat would also be a win for both human health and the environment, Hancock said. 

Hancock describes the current food system as very energy-intensive, especially the production of beef, which also generates a lot of climate-affecting methane gas. If people ate less meat, less energy would be consumed and the incidence of cardiovascular disease and some kinds of cancer would drop too, Hancock said.

CHEO welcomes report

The report is being released to the public on Thursday at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, with plans for CEO Alex Munter — who has already seen it — to make the opening remarks.

There's a natural tie between the recommendations of the report and many of CHEO's recommendations for kids, Munter said, such as healthy eating and active transportation.

"The connection between the future of kids' health, and the future of the planet's health, really struck me," he said.