Metro Vancouver has found itself a winner in a “race to zero” of a kind— all of last year, not once did the city have to issue an air quality advisory.
In its ninth annual Caring for the Air report, released just over a week ago, the region reported that the city’s air quality stayed good enough throughout 2019 to avoid triggering an air quality advisory, a welcome contrast to 2017 and 2018, which saw unprecedented numbers of days under such advisories in summer as wildfires tore through the forests of British Columbia — 2018 was the state’s worst fire season on record.
Some of this was down to good fortune: in May 2019, smoke from large wildfires in northern Alberta blew into the upper atmosphere over the Vancouver region, making for dramatic orange sunsets, but did not get close enough to the ground to affect air quality; meanwhile, favourable weather conditions spared Vancouver elevated ground-level ozone concentrations over summer, a common problem in many major cities.
But Metro Vancouver’s monitoring showed that levels of air pollutants generally fell in 2019, continuing a longer trend of falling air pollution concentrations over the years — even as the city’s population and economy has grown, along with its longstanding reputation as one of the world’s most liveable cities.
There are some persistent challenges: in 2019, stagnant weather conditions caused occasional high spikes in fine particulate matter from local sources — fireworks (such as during Halloween), residential wood burning, open burning and transportation.
But that may change in the next five years, as authorities passed a bylaw this spring that kicked off the first phase of Metro Vancouver’s efforts to tackle wood smoke from residential indoor burning.
Health and the hearth: Regulating wood smoke in Vancouver
Wood smoke contributes more than a quarter of fine particulate pollution (PM2.5, tiny particles a fraction the width of a human hair, which are harmful to health), making it the “most significant source” of fine particulate matter in the region and the “second top source of toxic air pollutants”, according to the City of Vancouver’s director of air quality and climate change, Roger Quan.
This year, public health authorities also sounded the alarm, recommending a reduction in air pollution, such as excess wood smoke, in populated areas, as part of the COVID-19 response, “because of strong evidence that exposure to air pollution increases susceptibility to respiratory viral infections”, the report stated.
By May 2021, there will be restrictions on indoor wood burning in the Vancouver region during the warm season, unless it is the sole source of heat. The other two phases come into force in September 2022 and September 2025 (see chart below).
“Exposure to wood smoke is of particular concern in densely populated urban areas, due to the proximity of a single smoking chimney to multiple neighbours,” Quan was quoted in the media.
Annual health-related benefits expected to be reaped from a reduction of air pollutants from this source are estimated at between $282 million and $869 million Canadian dollars (about US$207.6 million to US$639.8 million).
Vancouver region tightens air quality standards, will launch Clean Air Plan
In line with new, more stringent standards adopted by the federal government (the Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards) and the British Columbia region — of which Vancouver is the biggest city — the region of Vancouver has tightened its own “objectives” for nitrogen dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide (see table below).
The regional government intends to keep Vancouver’s emissions on a downward trend and mitigate Vancouver’s contribution to climate change through several plans targeting major emitting sectors.
One of these, its Clean Air Plan, will identify actions that Metro Vancouver can take on its own authority over the next 10 years, as well as those that need implementation by others.
The government expects a draft Plan to be revealed for comment and feedback later in 2020 and to be adopted in early 2021.
It will be drafted based on six months of engagement with the public, stakeholders and other governments on its goals, targets, strategies and actions.
According to the press release, Metro Vancouver proposes the following as 2030 regional targets:
- reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels;
- get ambient air quality in the region to meet or better ambient air quality objectives and standards set by Metro Vancouver, and the British Columbia and federal governments; and
- increase the amount of time that visual air quality is classified as excellent.
The Plan will focus on measures to reduce air pollutant emissions and impacts, including greenhouse gases, through, among other things, incentives, educational outreach campaigns and regulations.
“Where possible, the Plan will target common air contaminants and greenhouse gases together because many emission sources in this region emit both types of air contaminants (e.g., gasoline engines, natural gas furnaces, industrial manufacturing processes),” according to the backgrounder to the Plan (pdf).
The Clean Air Plan will build on existing Metro Vancouver air quality and greenhouse gas programs and policies be organized around seven issue areas: buildings, transportation, industry and commerce, waste, agriculture, nature and ecosystems, and measurement, monitoring and regulation.
The Plan is the Vancouver region government’s next iteration of air quality and greenhouse gas reduction plans.
It states in Caring for the Air 2020, “climate change and air quality are strongly linked, since many major sources of greenhouse gases in the region are also major sources of health-harming air contaminants. The Clean Air Plan will aim to maximize co-benefits by targeting emission sources that emit both types of air contaminants.”
Other measures Metro Vancouver is taking that the report outlines include monitoring major roadways closely (it discovered, for example, that large diesel-fueled trucks did more than traffic volume to determine the amount and type of pollution associated with busy roadways), dealing with emissions from waste and greening buildings.
The government is also reviewing its air quality monitoring network, identifying relevant new and emerging technology, and looking at the strengths and limitations of low-cost sensors and their potential to expand air quality monitoring coverage.
“Challenging times bring out our resiliency, and this year’s report was prepared in early 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic response,” wrote Metro Vancouver Board Chair, Sav Dhaliwal.
“While there are indications of significant global changes in air quality levels and much discussion on the benefits of good air quality on public health and resiliency, next year’s edition of Caring for the Air will examine in more detail how this response affected air quality in Metro Vancouver.”
Read the press release: METRO VANCOUVER AIR QUALITY IMPROVED IN 2019
Read more about Vancouver’s efforts in the report: Caring for the Air 2020 (pdf)
More on the Clean Air Plan process: Clean Air Plan Backgrounder (pdf)
Banner photo by Ted McGrath/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0