Trudeau and premiers need to phase out dirty coal

March 3, 2016
Published in the Regina Leader-Post, March 3, 2016

Photo: Roberta Franchuk, Pembina Institute

Where does our electricity come from? In a warming world — increasingly dependent on smartphones and driven by electric vehicles — it is an important question.

Canada has an abundance of hydro electricity and is developing more and more wind, solar and other renewable resources every year. But even as we prove we can produce electricity without emissions, some regions remain highly reliant on an outdated and uniquely high-emitting fossil fuel — coal.

Burning coal has two devastating consequences — it erodes public health by polluting the air we breathe and it contributes more than any other fuel source to climate change. Pollution from coal doesn’t obey provincial boundaries. Health impacts are felt in nearby and downwind provinces, making dirty coal an issue of national concern. Active support among the medical community for phasing out coal power shows the costly impacts of coal pollution are preventable.

Coal and climate

Coal’s troubles only worsen if you take a global view. Scientists and climate experts have made it clear that unfettered coal combustion is incompatible with a climate-safe future. Remarkably, burning coal accounts for 44 per cent of global carbon emissions. In Canada, coal-fired electricity makes up about 13 per cent of our generating capacity while producing 77 per cent of all emissions related to electricity production.

Eliminating coal-fired power in Canada and around the world is one of the greatest opportunities we have to safeguard the health of people and the global climate. Ontario has led the way in this regard, completing a total phase-out of coal power in 2014 — a year that also marked Toronto’s first smog-free summer in decades. Alberta — Canada’s most coal-intensive province — has recently announced it will blaze its own path and phase out coal by 2030. Two-thirds of the phased-out production will be replaced with renewable wind and solar energy, bolstering a world-class policy decision.

Despite recent victories in the transition away from coal, a few major battles remain. Nova Scotia is making an effort to limit its coal emissions and reach its target of 40 per cent renewable energy share by 2020, but expects to see significant coal reliance for years to come. Neighbouring New Brunswick has a single, large plant at Belledune responsible for 38 per cent of that province’s carbon emissions — and has no plans to close it until 2043.

After Alberta, Saskatchewan is Canada’s most coal-powered province with over 1,500 megawatts of capacity. Saskatchewan has applied carbon capture and storage (CCS) to its oldest operating unit, Boundary Dam 3. This costly technology — along with other pollution controls — could allow coal to continue to supply electricity with lower emissions and impacts on human health. But there’s one simple truth about CCS: we simply can’t afford to continue hoping it will eventually develop into an effective, safe and economic option for keeping coal on our power grids, blowing our carbon budgets in the meantime. Canada should join a growing number of countries in setting a firm deadline for “clean coal” to prove to be a reality.

Renewable energy on the rise

After the strong commitments made by Canada and 195 other nations at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris, coal’s international standing is clearly on the chopping block. The world’s economic bulls are aligning behind thriving and growing renewable energy businesses. A recent study from Duke University shows that between 2008 and 2012, the U.S. coal industry shed more than 49,000 jobs, while renewable energy created nearly 200,000.

Hot on the heels of the Paris Agreement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada’s premiers are set to move forward with a pan-Canadian approach to climate change. As political leaders sit down to work out the details of a national climate strategy today, we expect an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired electricity to be on their agenda.

Coal’s days are numbered. With already available alternatives we can improve our health and reduce our contribution to climate change sooner rather than later. It is clear coal is the past and renewable energy is the future. Join us in telling our governments it is time to phase out dirty coal in Canada.

Ed Whittingham is executive director of the Pembina Institute and Peter Robinson is chief executive officer of the David Suzuki Foundation.