EDMONTON — Canada’s “cheap” coal power carries considerable hidden costs in terms of harmful pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, says a new report released by the Pembina Institute.
Coal use is concentrated in a few provinces in Canada, but pollution from coal-fired electricity generation is a problem of national concern. Recent proposals to weaken impending federal coal regulations could, if accepted, further compromise efforts to reduce Canada’s most polluting, most carbon-intensive electricity source.
The High Costs of Cheap Power reviews many of the pollutants resulting from coal-fired electricity generation in Canada and outlines how these emissions affect human health and the environment. The report takes a close look at coal’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and other types of air pollution such as mercury, which can lead to abnormalities in cardiovascular and neurocognitive development in children, and sulphur dioxide, which can lead to serious respiratory ailments and other health concerns.
The report also identifies key regions in Canada where pollution from coal-fired power is particularly concerning.
“In Alberta and Saskatchewan, we see that over 60 per cent of the annual mercury emissions in these provinces come from electricity generation. That’s almost entirely due to these provinces’ heavy reliance on coal power,” said Ben Thibault, legal and policy analyst at the Pembina Institute and co-author of the report. “On the other hand, Ontario and more recently Nova Scotia are successfully making major reductions in coal use. As a result these provinces are seeing significant reductions in harmful air pollution.”
The report also discusses that the federal government has been under pressure to weaken their proposed coal regulations instead of strengthening the regulations to seize one of its best opportunities to reduce emissions and to help meet Prime Minister Harper’s international climate commitments. Some industry groups are pushing to allow existing coal units to operate without any requirement to reduce carbon emissions until they are a half-century old. The report shows how this change would cut in half the regulations’ effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the first 15 years of their implementation.
“Considering the very poor environmental performance of these old plants, it is hard to understand why the government would allow them to carry on polluting any longer than absolutely necessary,” said Tim Weis, director of renewable energy and efficiency policy at the Pembina Institute, and co-author of the report. “We have alternatives available to us that we didn’t have when these plants were first built. We are seeing at home and around the world how a successful switch from dirty coal to cleaner alternatives is possible.”
Director, renewable energy and efficiency policy