It has been a good week for people and the planet. Last Monday, November 21st, 2016, the federal government announced that it will take steps to phase out pollution from coal-fired power plants across the country by 2030. And on Thursday, November 24th, the Government of Alberta announced that it has signed an agreement with three major power generators to ensure a phase-out of coal plants in Alberta by 2030.
There will be time in the coming days to examine and critique the details surrounding these two new announcements but today we want to acknowledge what they can mean for human health in Alberta, across Canada, and around the world.
A new report endorsed by 15 health and environmental organizations—including the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the Asthma Society of Canada, and the Lung Association—estimates that a Canada-wide phase-out of coal power by 2030 would prevent more than 1000 premature deaths, 900 hospital admissions or emergency room visits and nearly $5 billion in health care costs by improving local air quality. In fact, most of these national health benefits will be realized in the Prairies—about $3 billion in Alberta and up to $1.3 billion in Saskatchewan. While the lion’s share of the benefits will happen in the Prairies, there will still be important benefits realized in the Atlantic provinces and in central Canada, making a Canada-wide coal-phase out truly in the country’s national interest.
The 2030 phase-out will also significantly reduce mercury emissions. Mercury is the reason that pregnant women are warned not to eat certain types of fish during pregnancy. It is a persistent substance that accumulates in the aquatic food chain that can harm the brains of children exposed during pregnancy. Reducing this pollution will mean that these harmful effects can be minimized; that we can reclaim fish as a healthy protein source for all.
In addition, the 2030 phase-out will help Canada’s fight against climate change. Renowned medical journal The Lancet estimates that climate change is already responsible for approximately 150,000 deaths each year. People are dying from malnutrition, malaria, infectious disease and extreme heat; conditions made worse by a climate characterized by more frequent and more intense storms, heat waves, and droughts. People in countries that are already struggling to feed their people will experience many of these health impacts, but Canada will not be immune. Over the last 10 years, Canada has experienced an increase in droughts, wildfires, extreme rain and ice storms, floods and extreme heat. We have seen the spread of insect- and tick-borne diseases such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease. And we have seen permafrost and ice roads melting in the far north. Canadians are already being affected by climate change, both in economic and health terms.
By accelerating the closure of coal plants across the country, we will cut Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 8%. This will help Canada to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and put us in a stronger position to ask the same of other countries. But more importantly, we will be acting decisively to improve the health of Albertans, Canadians and other people around the world from the ravages of uncontrolled climate change.
We congratulate the governments of Alberta and Canada in their decisions to phase out coal-fired power, and to reap the important health benefits for Albertans and all Canadians. Now the hard work begins: designing plans to ensure this transition happens quickly, in partnership and collaboration with communities most impacted. We look forward to working with all levels of governments throughout this process.
Prepared by Kim Perrotta, MHSc, Executive Director of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), on November 25, 2016