Healthy Spaces Podcast Special Episode: The Win-Win for Human and Planetary Health
April 06, 2022
The relationship between human and planetary health is connected, and so is the quality of indoor and outdoor air.
28 min read
Are we able to reimagine a world where clean air, water, and food are available to all? Where economies are focused on health and wellbeing, where cities are livable, and people have control over their health and the health of the planet?
These are the questions being asked by the World Health Organization as it kicks off World Health Day, an international campaign to focus attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy.
At Trane Technologies, we're challenging what is possible for a sustainable world. That means that every day, our employees, partners, and customers are finding new and innovative ways to mitigate climate change and build a better planet for us all. And we're not alone on this journey.
Throughout the last two seasons of our Healthy Spaces podcast, we’ve talked with a wide variety of experts to understand how we can create better indoor environments so that people can live, work and play in a safer, healthier way. We've also discussed the impact that better indoor environments may have on outdoor environments – and how the reverse is also true. Technology has advanced and solutions exist to decarbonize our buildings and transportation – and that’s good for all of us.
We know that there are some big positives around improving indoor air quality - and at the same time connecting it to the goals of a building owner related to efficiency and energy savings of the building. All those things don't have to be islands unto themselves. All those things are connected.
To us it’s clear. The relationship between human health and planetary health is so intertwined that it's impossible to talk about one without the other.
Rasha: Are we able to reimagine a world where clean air, water, and food are available to all? Where economies are focused on health and wellbeing, where cities are livable, and people have control over their health and the health of the planet?
These are the questions being asked by the World Health Organization as it kicks off World Health Day, an international campaign to focus global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy.
At Trane Technologies, we're challenging what is possible for a sustainable world. That means that day in and day out, our employees, partners, and customers are finding new and innovative ways to mitigate climate change and build a better planet for us all. And we're not alone on this journey.
Throughout the last two seasons of our healthy spaces podcast, we've been talking to leaders from different areas of expertise to better understand how we can create better indoor environments so that people can live, work and play in a safer, healthier way.
We've also discussed the impact that better indoor environments may have on outdoor environments. In fact, the interconnectivity between human health and planetary health is so delicate that it's impossible to talk about one without the other. To honor world health day. I'm going to look back on some of those conversations that explore the delicate balance between human and planetary health.
I'll be joined by someone who lives and breathes sustainability, both in his personal and professional life.
Scott Tew: [S1:E1 – 00:20:49] I think that the fact that there's some people thinking about how we solve some of the big concerns of the day, these are very relevant. It's a very relevant topic. We're all concerned about bottom line impacts of using energy in buildings, but we're also concerned about health risks of us being in our homes, of those returning to work, of us sending our kids to school.
Rasha: That's Scott Tew, sustainability leader and executive director for Trane Technologies Center for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability. And I'm Rasha Hasaneen, and you're listening to Healthy Spaces with Trane Technologies, a series of conversations that explores the world of indoor and outdoor environmental quality from the inside out.
Part 1: Shaping the health/sustainability conversation: reflections and learnings
Rasha: Scott. Welcome. It's great to have you on the show.
Scott: Thanks, Rasha.
Rasha: This is not your first time on the healthy spaces podcast. You were actually my very first guest for our pilot episode back in 2020. Back then, we were right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. We just heard a small clip from that conversation where you talked about the struggle in balancing concerns between human health and bottom-line impacts of energy use in buildings.
A lot has happened since December 2020. How optimistic are you feeling about the future right now?
Scott: I mean, a lot has happened. You're right. But I am optimistic. I mean, I think we're all smarter. No matter who you are, where you are, what you do. I think we're all wiser now in a lot of respects. And I think indoor air is no different than a lot of other subjects. We all have learned a lot in the past couple of years.
What about you Rasha? I mean, what have you learned in terms of connections between indoor air quality and all the other aspects of a building that both owners and occupants care about?
Rasha: As we've been looking at indoor environmental quality tied to the pandemic, we've also seen a lot of positive outcomes in terms of innovation, general public awareness…
And that in turn has created demand for new products that promote health and wellbeing in a very different way. One very specific positive outcome of the pandemic has been the emergence of new indoor environmental quality standards based on new scientific learnings, and the spotlight that's been put on reducing the risk of transmission of airborne diseases indoors, which I think is a lot more new than some of the cognitive studies that have been out there from before. These new standards, though, come with a couple of warning signs. There’s still a lot of discrepancy when it comes to how we define what clean indoor air means. The International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate created a public database where everyone can research current standards and guidelines for indoor environmental quality, all over the world.
First, there are still many countries which have no guidelines at all. And secondly, maximum contaminant level thresholds differ largely by country, even by state here in the US. So, there's definitely a need for this unifying approach on what “good” looks like for human health. We're also seeing that increasing outdoor ventilation and filtration are still largely regarded as a silver bullet for indoor air quality, and that's incurring higher energy consumption, which is setting us back really decades in terms of how we've improved building energy efficiency, and quite frankly, the sustainability of the built environment.
Scott: Yeah. And to that point, Rasha, most people around the world, have gotten comfortable with the fact that outdoor air, in some areas, is polluted. We have given so little thought to indoor air. And, actually, many times there are a lot of studies that show that, as you know, that indoor can be two to five times worse than outdoor air. And I know that there was this move during the pandemic for us to just ventilate with lots of outdoor air as if that were going to solve everything and I'm not sure it solved all the things that we all wanted it to solve. And once again I think we are a lot wiser.
Rasha: And especially when you start to think about a lot of the allergens that actually get into the indoor air, actually come from the outdoor air. And part of that actually comes from the fact that we've historically, I think, looked at carbon dioxide as this proxy for air quality. And, if you dilute the air, you get lower concentrations of carbon dioxide. And we now know, as you said, we're wiser, carbon dioxide is a great proxy for some things, but it's not a great proxy for total indoor air quality. We had a previous episode with Manish Sharma, the global CTO and vice president of connected buildings at Honeywell, where we talked about this:
Manish: The fact that bringing fresh air comes with an energy penalty is true. It's the reality. I mean, we all know that, but while increased ventilation is one solution, it is not the only solution.
My experience and all the study information, what we did. So, the first thing I would like to say is that CO2 is not a bad parameter to measure. I think it's an important parameter. However, we need to be cognizant that we are using a proxy for a proxy to solve the problem. CO2 is considered a proxy for occupancy density in the space, which is a proxy for other contaminants of concern, such as PM, VOCs and others. Secondly, I would say CO2 is a lagging indicator of indoor air quality. As it takes time to build up and then stays in the air, while we are allowing CO2 to build up in the area, other contaminants of concern like a particulate matter are also rising. We can measure CO2 as far as there is no other option, but in my opinion, multidimensional sensor, I strongly recommend that we should think about measuring much more to provide a holistic fix of the problem. Not just one parameter.
Scott: I think, Rasha, this whole idea of needing to monitor, I mean, obviously we do. I think it's funny that most of us consume roughly two to three quarts of water a day, and we're always concerned about how clean is that water that I’m putting in my body? But, the facts are we actually inhale 15,000 quarts of air a day, and much of that, up to 90% of it, is indoor air. And we don't give a lot of thought, many times, to the quality of the indoor air. It's not enough just to rush the building with fresh air, unless we're providing more sensing capabilities, unless we're monitoring what we're inhaling, How can we go about and ensure that we're doing it better and differently?
Rasha: Absolutely. Like you said, with water, you think it's okay as long as it looks great and it tastes great. What we found too, and we've heard about it in previous episodes, as long as people don't smell it, they don't feel like the air is low quality. And we know a lot--
Scott: The was before the age of a pandemic and a virus.
Rasha: That’s exactly right. That's exactly right. And so that sensing capability is critical so people can see their air in a way that allows them to make better choices. And so, monitoring and measuring in order to improve indoor air quality has been a recurring theme on the Healthy Spaces podcast. Back in season one, my previous guest Jim Freihaut, an associate professor of architectural engineering at Penn State, talked about how digital technologies have taken longer to penetrate the construction industry compared to others.
Jim: I did a little study before in terms of, how is digital technology and information technology, sensors, and controls, and electronics used in the building industry compared to other industries. And, the building industry does use these technologies, but at a very low density compared to other systems. Cars, it's amazing. You'll have 100, 200 sensors. You'll have maybe a thousand readings per second. All that information is immediately transferred into the operating system and the performance of the car and the safety situation as the car is optimized. We don't even do that in a very slow, frame of reference. We don't even take enough measurements in building to really operate.
We have similar types of measurements and sensors but very few of them and the information technology coordination within the buildings is not that good. For example, you can have very sophisticated LED (light-emitting diode) lighting systems in buildings and that's a good example in terms of improvement in energy efficiency of electricity to light going from the incandescent bulb to the fluorescent bulbs to LED bulbs and measuring the light. And putting sensors into buildings to say, “Well, I don't need, I don't need light in this part of the building because I have daylight.”
So those sorts of things are done with separate systems in the building. The air conditioning system, the lighting system, the ventilation system. They're only really crudely coordinated in terms of the amount of readings that are taken, how that information is analyzed in real time. And then how the system as a whole and the parts of the system are coordinated to give you the best overall building system performance.
It's a very difficult problem that the building industry really needs to address much more aggressively.
Rasha: So, what do you think Scott? Should buildings and homes be more like cars? Fast, furious, and with a whole lot of sensors?
Scott: One thing I think we can agree on, Rasha, whether it's cars or not, is that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. And I think that's what monitors and sensors give us. We've got to have the data to know what we're dealing with and what the size of the problem is to come up with better ways to manage and to solve the problem. And so, yeah, maybe the automotive industry is teaching us something about indoor air quality.
Rasha: Traditionally organizations like the WHO have focused on outdoor air pollution, when they talk about the need for clean air, and it's no surprise considering 4.2 million people die prematurely every year from ambient or outdoor air pollution. However, indoor air pollution can be five times worse than what it is outdoor. The latest figures point to 3.8 million deaths caused by indoor air pollution, annually.
The number of people who have to live with chronic diseases due to long time exposure to bad air quality is even higher. According to the WHO, in 2019 it was estimated that asthma alone affected 262 million people, and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology estimates that 10% to 30% of the global population is affected by allergic rhinitis. So, it should come as no surprise that air pollution, which in and of itself, is an environmental disaster - is also human disaster. A study by CE Delft looked at 432 cities across Europe and came to the conclusion that, on average, every inhabitant of a European city suffered a welfare loss of over 1,250 Euro or $1,400 a year, owing to direct and indirect health losses associated with poor air quality. This is equivalent to 3.9% of income earned in cities, which is very substantial when you think about how the cost of living is increasing.
Reducing air pollution levels is not only good for our planet, but it's also good for our health and our economies. Win-win-win.
We've seen this narrative played over and over when we talk about electrification of the transport sector and we're going through that ourselves in our transport refrigeration businesses. Replacing fossil fuel vehicles with cleaner technology alternatives, coupled with increasing investment in renewable energy results in more sustainable and healthy cities. What can other sectors, including the building and construction sectors, learn from the automotive industry?
Scott: I think the automotive industry has learned, along with all of us, that you can't wait on every issue to be solved before you start making progress, number one. There are some things we just know that we need to go and do better.
Do we have to wait to have every question answered about infrastructure before you can start making big moves towards transitioning to all electric? And the answer that was no, we don't have to have it all answered. We can begin taking the right steps towards the next future and along the way, things can begin to develop within the ecosystem. The customers of the next generation of automobiles who are buying electric includes myself, and I think you, Rasha.
Scott: Is it perfect? No, it's not perfect. Is it working? It does work. And I think there's a lot of upside potential. It's the same for buildings and things like indoor air quality. We know that there are some big positives around improving indoor air quality, and at the same time connecting it to the goals of a building owner related to efficiency of the building or energy savings. All those things don't have to be islands unto themselves. All those things are connected. That's what we should learn from the automotive industry. First acknowledging that it's all connected. And then stepping back and beginning to think about how we can manage it, sort of comprehensively.
Rasha: I remember actually being in California at the beginning of this conversation on electric vehicles, when Tesla was, for example, was first formed and it felt like there were so many headwinds because you couldn't solve a hundred percent of the problem. But that's what I think the automotive industry did really well is they said, “Actually, we're not going to solve all the charging stations and everything all over.” It's, “Hey, if I can charge it at home and drive around and get to work and back and have enough range for that, then I'm going to get an uptake.” And that’s exactly what happened. And I think in the building industry, we can be thinking the same way, we don’t have to solve for every eventuality to do that.
Scott: Yeah. And to your point, Rasha, I think that in a similar vein, buildings for many years, I don't think we saw a future where we have the choices that we may have today in terms of the environmental side of buildings and electrification. There are solutions in the marketplace where we can transition completely away from burning fossil fuels to generate heat. We can move to total electrification using a geothermal heating, using heat pumps. I can't think of the downside really for a building owner, for the occupants, for moving towards solutions that exist today. It’s sort of the same analogy we were talking about for electric vehicles.
Rasha: So Scott, let's shift gears a little bit to talk about what you look after for us every day here at Trane Technologies: our environmental, social, and governance or ESG. Perhaps not everyone's familiar with the term ESG and what it really means. And I know you've got a teenage son, so how would you explain it to him.
Scott: ESG as it's called today, or environmental social governance, previous to this was called sustainability, which for some people never meant much either. They didn't know what to make of it. Here's the way I would explain it. I think what it means to any company is we're questioning what it takes to be and to do better. And that's, that's the bottom line. I think it's helping companies view themselves differently and it's helping us view those outside the company very differently. It helps you redefine where you go in the future, helps you commit to things that maybe you weren't comfortable committing to in the past. And I think to our earlier point, Rasha, we're able to use data about where we are today to figure out what needs to be adjusted so that we're better in the future.
The E, the S, and the G, I probably should've mentioned that they each do mean something. Environmental, that one make sense. It means: what are we doing as a company to reduce negative impacts on the environment, especially things like greenhouse gas, for instance, and greenhouse gas emissions? On the social side, the S, that really gets to how we manage and treat the people that work for the company. It's also a lens for our communities and where we choose to invest the company's dollars within communities, as well as where we've invested facilities and research centers and sales offices. And then, lastly, ESG now is viewed by most stakeholders as so important to the company's future that we have to have the proper G, or governance, in place, which means the board of directors has a role, there's a leadership team that has a role, the management team has a broad role, but it also speaks to the fact that every employee in the company may need to have some level of ownership for us to get this right, because we just can't do it with a few well-meaning people trying to do good things for a company. The GP says that it's an all hands onboard. Everyone has a role.
Rasha: I know you talk a lot about the environmental responsibility of businesses. Do you agree that COVID-19 has added pressure on social responsibility too? How is social performance looked at today from an ESG perspective?
Scott: I think COVID-19 was a wake-up call for every company, small, medium, and large. Certainly was ahead of its time, I don't think we would have gotten as far as we’ve gotten in two years if we had waited on inertia, sort of every company to play catch up. It accelerated almost every facet of how companies think about the social side of their business. Meaning, how do we treat people? How do we think about the future of work? How do we think about flexibility and resilience? I think for companies like Trane Technologies, it did the same thing for us, too. We found a way to be flexible. We found a way to keep productivity moving forward, moving in the right direction. At the same time, acknowledging that our employees will need to do their work differently than they may have done it in the past. The way we did that was that we adjusted, we developed new policies, we provided new benefits and much of that is carrying over in who the company will be in the future so that things continue to be productive and people can feel like, number one, their concerns are being acknowledged by the company. But more than that, they're feeling like the company has become a partner of theirs. It's one thing to acknowledge something. It's another to say, “How can we help?”
Rasha: I think because this is happening across multiple companies, you're starting to see the market, react and starting to talk about, how do we measure how a company does this in a way that it can indicate where to invest our money? There's a lot of conversation around, how do we get more transparency around ESG metrics? Especially the more squishy, social portion of ESG. Everyone is now grappling with this area of ESG that seems to be emerging a little bit more.
Scott: Yeah, we're going to continue to see this “S” of companies, the social side of companies evolve, I think, exponentially over the next few years.
Rasha: And I think the more data, obviously the better, right? Because no one metric in this area is going to give you a good picture of the company. Whether it's gender parody or ethnic equity, or whatever it is. Making sure you're providing equal opportunity for everyone in the workforce, everyone in the community, those are still complex metrics and they're still evolving.
Scott: Yes, evolving fast, though.
Rasha: In the end metrics are important. They allow businesses to understand how they're progressing year over year. They allow investors to be able to compare apples to apples when they're thinking about businesses, and they give them a meaningful way to benchmark companies before they make big investment decisions. I sat down with Joanna Frank, President and CEO of the Center for Active Design. Her organization works very closely with real estate investors, so it was interesting to hear their take on the role of health in ESG metrics.
Joanna Frank: We're working with investors, around the world. And I would say that there's two things that are really driving demand and shaping the building industry as we move forward. And so, it's absolutely those investors, their increased commitment to environmental, social and governance metrics, and really reporting on ESG metrics as part of their overarching priorities as institutional investors. So, what that means for health is that health has now emerged as one of the key aspects of “S.”
So, that's really important to this story because they have made commitments that they are going to have X percentage of their investment portfolio, really be reporting on ESG. And that has become such an important piece of the puzzle because during the pandemic, the investments that had high ESG metrics were actually seen to out-perform their partners who had lower ESG metrics or weren't reporting on ESG at all. So, that's a game changer.
A couple of stats that I think are really telling: 92% of the institutional investors that we surveyed said that they are going to be enhancing their reporting around health and wellness strategies over the next three years. So, if you weren't, as a company, actually reporting on health and wellness stats, you are going to be compelled to do so if you want to have investment from those institutional investors.
Rasha: Now, Scott, there's something else I've heard you talk about recently and that's climate resilience. What does that mean? And why does it matter?
Scott: Yeah. Climate resilience, it seems like a hard concept, but it's really not. It's about thinking ahead on, how do we get ready for impacts, especially the negative impacts, of climate? We can't fix all of our climate concerns in time. So, can we reduce the impact? Yes. And there are companies like Trane Technologies that are doing their part to do that, but we can't fix the entire issue. Which means there will continue to be things like extreme weather events. There are going to continue to be other impacts. And so, whether we're talking about a city, a state, a country, a company, there's a need for building out your plans on how you will adjust in order to be ready for whatever those negative impacts of climate are. This is how we take the fear out of the conversation. We need a plan for how we will react and act when some of these impacts happen, and that's resiliency.
Rasha: I think this is not new to us at Trane, either. Right? I mean, the whole HVAC and refrigeration industry has come out of a need for, essentially, climate resilience. People can live in colder and colder, or warmer and warmer, climates if they have indoor environments that are regulated, that are cool, that are heated, that have filtration. You can transport food, vaccines, et cetera, further. So, this is our bread and butter, right? So, when you couple that with that planetary responsibility it becomes just a great combination.
Rasha: So, Scott, as we wrap up, there's usually one or two more personal questions I like to ask my guests. So, last time I asked you to give our listeners some tips when it comes to improving our own carbon footprint.
Today, I'm going to ask you a tougher one. In fact, it's a question the World Health Organization is asking all of us on this World Health Day. Are you able to reimagine a world where clean air, water, and food are available to all? Where economies are focused on health and wellbeing? Where cities are livable, and people have control over their health and the health of the planet?
Scott: Can I imagine it? Yes. I, you know, I think that one thing the entire world may have taught ourselves in the past couple of years has been that the impossible can be possible.
What stands in the gap between where we are today and where we think things should be, sometimes it's a lack of clarity. We don’t have the data. Sometimes it's some lack of innovation, but not often. Sometimes though, it's just that we haven't seen the problem for what it is. I mean, if you think about indoor air quality, there are some drivers for why we should insist on more indoor air quality at the same time, not allowing ourselves to waste energy in a building for a demanding indoor air quality. But we're not really all on the same page around what the great upside is for making sure all that happens. You know, learning goes up with better indoor air quality. As we all know, better indoor air quality has a direct impact to our overall health.
And then, last but not least, I think that smart cities need to get this right too, because they're the ones tasked with providing the infrastructure for people in their homes, in terms of electric grid for providing energy for a city. So, there's great upside for getting this right. And so, to your question, “Can I imagine it?” Yes, I can imagine it. I think we all should imagine this world where we get to check all the boxes and we don't have to settle for these negative trade-offs that we've all settled for so often in the past, that we've forgotten that we settle for a trade-off.
Rasha: For me, I would start with the data and I would want to find a way to make it so available, so ubiquitous, that people have no choice but to understand that we don't need to trade off human health for planetary health. And we can start to innovate in this space because I think. When we make those trade-offs, the thing that suffers the most is innovation.
Rasha: Scott, I have, as always, really enjoyed having this conversation with you. I know we have a lot of conversations one-on-one, we don't always let the rest of the world in. I've really loved looking back on some of the learnings from our experts, but I feel like there's so much more to explore when it comes to this intersection between human health and planetary health, and what it means for cities, for businesses, and ultimately for us as citizens of the world. And so, I am looking forward to this journey and continuing on this journey with you.
Scott: Yeah, me too, Rasha.
Rasha: You've been listening to Healthy Spaces with Trane Technologies. I'm Rasha Hasaneen. Don't forget to follow us to hear future episodes. Thanks for joining us and we'll see you next time.
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