Ontario’s Coal Plant Phase-out Produced Many Health and Environmental Benefits

On January 17, 2017, industry think-tank the Fraser Institute released a new report, Did the Coal Phase-out Reduce Ontario Air Pollution? which suggests that coal plants across Canada should not be phased out based on its assertion that Ontario’s phase-out did not significantly reduce air pollution (Fraser Institute, 2017). This report includes a number of statements about pollution, health care benefits, and coal plants that are incorrect or misleading.

The Fraser report focuses on the air pollution benefits of the Ontario coal plant phase-out while ignoring the many co-benefits associated with this action. In 2002, the five coal-fired power plants in Ontario were responsible for

  • nearly one quarter (23%) of the sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions and one seventh (14%) of the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in Ontario that contributed to air pollution and acid rain,
  • nearly one quarter (23%) of the airborne mercury emissions which contributed to the contamination of fish with a persistent toxic that is harmful to the brains of humans, and
  • one fifth (20%) of Ontario’s greenhouse gases emissions that were contributing to climate change (OPHA, 2002).
Figure 1: Annual SO2 Emissons by Sector, Ontario (OMOECC)
Figure 1: Annual Emissions of Sulphur Dioxide, Different Sectors, Ontario, 2003-2012 (OMOECC, 2014)

Over the last 20 years, the public health sector, the Ontario Medical Association, environmental organizations, cottagers’ associations, and labour organizations have been outspoken advocates for the phase-out of coal plants in Ontario. All of these groups shared the common view that many health and environmental benefits could be gained simultaneously by closing Ontario’s coal plants.

While there were technologies that could be applied to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury from these plants, there was no technology at that time that could eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases. Given the age of Ontario’s coal plants, the availability of combined cycle natural gas plants, the promise of energy efficiency, and renewable technologies, it made more sense economically to accelerate the closure of coal plants than to re-invest in them.

Figure 2: annual air levels of sulfur dioxide in Ontario, 2004-2013
Figure 2: Annual Air Levels of Sulphur Dioxide, Selected Sites, Ontario, 2004-2013 (OMOECC, 2014)

The Fraser report and press release suggest that coal plants are not a major contributor of fine particulate matter (PM2.5)—the air pollutant that has been mostly clearly linked to chronic health impacts such as heart disease and lung cancer, and one of two air pollutants responsible for most of the smog alerts that used to be common in Ontario. This is simply not true.

Coal plants emit significant quantities of SO2 and substantial quantities of NOx. Both are gaseous air pollutants that can harm human health directly. When they enter the atmosphere, they can be transformed into sulphates and nitrates—acid particles that contribute to air levels of PM2.5. In fact, this secondary PM2.5 is the major culprit behind high levels of PM2.5 measured in many airsheds and is often more hazardous for human health than other forms of PM2.5 (RIAS, 2011). This PM2.5 does not, however, show up in emission inventories for PM2.5.

The Fraser Institute suggests that Ontario’s coal phase-out had little impact on emissions and air quality. This is misleading. Between 2003 and 2012, SO2 emissions from coal plants were reduced by about 140,000 tonnes (see Figure 1). During that same period, annual air levels of SO2 across Ontario declined by nearly 50% (see Figure 2) and annual air levels of PM2.5 declined by about 25% (see Figure 3) (OMOECC, 2014). While the improvements in air levels of SO2 and PM2.5 cannot be attributed solely to the closure of coal plants, their closure was an important contributor to reductions in air levels.

Figure 3: annual air levels of fine particulate matter in Ontario, 2004-2013
Figure 3: Annual Air Levels of Fine Particulate Matter, Selected Sites, Ontario 2004-2013 (OMOECC, 2014)

Air quality is impacted by multiple sources of pollution. The actions to reduce air pollution are intentionally broad-based because the improvements are cumulative. Coal plants are an efficient target for emission reductions because they are stationary sources that emit large volumes of air pollutants. They are also a significant source of air toxics such as mercury and greenhouse gases.

Air pollution is also a transboundary issue. Emissions of SO2 and NOx from coal plants in the U.S. have a significant impact on Ontario’s air quality, while emissions from Ontario’s coal plants have a substantial impact on air quality in Quebec, Vermont and New York (Yap et al., 2005). In recognition of this reality, Canada and the United States committed in 1991 to take action on both sides of the border with the Canada-US Air Quality Agreement. This agreement has proven very successful. Emissions and air quality on both sides of the border have improved because of cooperation between the two countries (Canada-US, 2014).

In 2005, Ontario estimated the contribution of coal plants to air pollution across Ontario and the adverse health impacts associated with that contribution. Because coal plants release air pollutants so high in the air, the pollutants are dispersed over long distances. The impact, therefore, on any one airshed is relatively small, but the impact overall on human health can be significant because so many people can be affected. Using methodologies that were well-accepted in other jurisdictions, Ontario estimated that air pollution from its  coal plants were responsible for over 600 premature deaths, 900 hospital admissions, and 1000 emergency room visits, each year, in Ontario. These health impacts were valued at $3 billion per year (OMOE, 2005).

The Fraser report suggests that the $3 billion in health benefits estimated cannot be accurate because it represents too great a percentage of Ontario’s health care budget. This statement reflects a misunderstanding about the health benefits estimated in 2005. The $3 billion per year in health benefits reflect the value of the many lives that are shortened by air pollution, as well as health care costs. They do not reflect health care costs alone. The 2005 report is clear about this point.

 An independent assessment conducted by Toronto Public Health in 2014 suggests that improvements in Ontario’s air quality have translated into significant health benefits for Ontario residents. Toronto Public Health found that improvements in Toronto’s air quality from 2000 to 2011 have reduced air pollution-related premature deaths by 23% (from 1,700 to 1,300 per year) and hospital admissions by 41% (from 6,000 to 3,550 per year) in Toronto alone.  It attributes the improvements in air quality to a variety of policies implemented by different levels of government including the phase-out of coal plants by Ontario (TPH, 2014).

With the evidence of catastrophic climate change mounting daily, the need to modernize Canada’s electricity sector has never been more clear. With the costs of renewable technologies dropping, the opportunity to transform our economy has never been greater. CAPE stands by its position. We believe that the phase-out of coal plants in Alberta and across Canada is an economically prudent decision that will improve the health of Canadians while taking the steps needed to address climate change.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, MHSc, Executive Director, CAPE

References:

  • Canada-US, 2014. Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement Progress
  • Fraser Institute.  (2017). Did the Coal Phase-out Reduce Ontario Air Pollution? Prepared by Ross McKitrick and Elmira Aliakbari.
  • Ontario Ministry of Energy (OMOE).  2005. Cost Benefit Analysis: Replacing Ontario’s Coal-Fired Electricity Generation. Prepared by DSS Management Consultants Inc. RWDI Air Inc. April, 2005
  • Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (OMOECC). 2014. Air Quality in Ontario 2013 Report.
  • Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA). 2002. Beyond Coal: Power, Public Health and the Environment
  • Regulatory Impact Assessment Study (RIAS). 2011.  Reduction of Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Coal-Fired Generation of Electricity Regulations.
  • Toronto Public Health (TPH). 2014. Path to Healthier Air: Toronto Air Pollution Burden of Illness Update. Technical Report.
  • World Health Organization (WHO). 2013. Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP Project.
  • Yap, David, Neville Reid, Gary De Brou, and Robert Bloxam. 2005. Transboundary Air Pollution in Ontario 2005. Queen’s Printer.
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Some Good News for People and the Planet

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

Health Professionals Call for End for Coal

Coal Power Plant for Electricity Production - Chimeneas Industriales

CAPE Media Release, Toronto, May 18, 2016

More than 300,000 doctors, nurses, public health professionals and public health advocates represented by 82 organizations from 30 countries have released a Global Health Statement on Coal Plants today, in anticipation of next week’s G7 summit.  The statement calls on the G7 leaders to discuss the phase-out of coal plants as a key health issue when they meet on May 26 and 27. 

In Canada, 12 organizations have signed the statement including the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), the Canadian Lung Association, the Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA) and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).   

“The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that “climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century,” said Dr. Courtney Howard, emergency room physician in Yellowknife and Board Member of CAPE. “The WHO estimates that climate change will claim the lives of 250,000 people each year by 2030 unless we take dramatic steps to reduce emissions today.”

Canada can be a global leader on this issue, building on momentum from the provinces.  Ontario no longer burns coal for electricity and Alberta intends to follow suit by 2030.  Accelerating the transition away from coal creates immediate health benefits: the avoided health impacts from Ontario’s phase-out alone are valued at approximately $3 billion per year.

“We want our leaders to understand that they can produce significant air pollution health benefits in their home countries by phasing out coal plants,” said Ian Culbert, Executive Director of the CPHA.  “The air pollution from coal plants has been clearly linked to increases in heart disease, strokes, lung diseases including lung cancer, and asthma symptoms.” 

“Ontario’s six coal plants produced approximately 600 premature deaths and 900 hospital admissions each year back in 2005” said Kim Perrotta, Executive Director CAPE.  “With their phase-out, levels of air pollution in Ontario have declined dramatically along with air pollution-related health impacts.”  

“In Alberta, the phase-out of 18 coal-fired generators is expected to produce health benefits worth about $300 million per year,” offered Dr. Joe Vipond, emergency room physician in Calgary and CAPE member.  “Imagine what we could achieve if we phased out the 16 coal-fired generators in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan as well”.

A copy of the Global Health Statement on Coal Plants is available here: https://cape.ca/global-health-statement-on-coal-plants/

 

Act Now to Prevent Global Flooding

Photo: Cpt Marie Preece, Cornwall, UK. The Wildlife Trust
Photo: Cpt Marie Preece, Cornwall.  The Wildlife Trust

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE , March 29, 2016

Climate change is no longer a distant problem.  It is happening.  And we only have a few decades to make the dramatic changes needed to avoid impacts that could be devastating (Carrington, 2016).  This is the declaration of some of the world’s leading climate scientists. 

A Flooded World

In March, nineteen climate scientists released a new study that indicates that climate change is happening much more quickly than previously predicted.  This study, which combined modern observations, modelling, and the examination of geological formations created thousands of years ago, is predicting that global sea levels could rise by several meters within 50 to 150 years if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow (Hansen et al., 2016).   The lead author, former NASA researcher James Hansen, maintains that this multi-meter increase in sea levels could occur even if we manage to limit global temperature increases to the 2 degree C target set by the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC) (Milman, 2016). He and his colleagues are pushing for a more aggressive target.     

Another study, released in February, predicted that 20% of the world’s population will have to migrate away from coasts swamped by rising oceans unless we can halt climate change in the very near future (Clark et al., 2016).   Under this scenario, cities such New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Calcutta, Jakarta and Shanghai would all be submerged (Carrington, 2016).  These changes, which would be devastating at a social and economic level, are expected to last for thousands of years (Hansen et al., 2016; Clark et al., 2016).

Photo-PdPhoto-Boston University-storm-surge-hurricane2
 Photo: PdPhoto, Boston University 

These researchers are making a clarion call; they are calling for immediate action to save the world for future generations. They say that this future may still be avoided if fossil fuel emissions are rapidly phased out and agricultural and forestry practices are improved (Hansen et al., 2016).   But time is running out.

Action Needed in Canada

To keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees C (relative to pre-industrial times), the International Panel on Climate Change has indicated that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 70 to 95% by 2050 relative to 2010 (IPCC, 2015).  

In 2010, Canada emitted 707 megatonnes (1 million tonnes or MT) of greenhouse gases; 23% from the oil and gas industry, 24% from the transportation sector, 14% from the electricity sector, 12% from buildings, 11% from energy intensive industries, 10% from the agricultural sector, and 7% from waste and other sectors (Canada, 2016).  In order to meet our obligations to slow climate change, we will need to transform our society.  We will need to cut our reliance on fossil fuels.  We will have to revolutionize our transportation sector and redesign our communities to support walking, cycling, and public transit. We will need to invest in renewable energies, increase the energy efficiency of our buildings and industries, and change the practices in our agricultural sector. 

While the electricity sector is responsible for only 14% of all Canada’s emissions, it is seen as the sector from which reductions can be made most quickly.  Since 2005, Ontario has reduced its emissions by close to 20%.  Almost all of these reductions can be attributed to the closing of its six coal-fired power plants (Canada, 2016).  In 2015, Alberta announced its decision to accelerate the closure of its coal-fired power plants.  By doing so, it can cut its emissions by 17% by 2030 and reduce Canada’s total emissions by 6%, while producing air quality-related health benefits worth $300 million per year for its residents (Pembina et al., 2013).  

References:

  • Canada. 2016.  Canada’s Second Biennial Report on Climate Change. 
  • Carrington D. 2016.  Sea-level rise ‘could last twice as long as human history’. The Guardian, Feb 8, 2016
  • Clark P et al. 2016. Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change.  Nature Climate Change.  February 8, 2016
  • Hansen J et al. 2016. Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 degrees C global warming could be dangerous.  Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. March 22, 2016.  
  • International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  2015.  Climate Change Synthesis for Policy Makers.
  • Milman O.  Climate Guru James Hansen warns of much worse than expected sea level rise.  The Guardian.  March 22, 2016.
  • Pembina Institute, CAPE, Asthma Society of Canada, Lung Association of Alberta and Northwest Territories.  2013.  Costly Diagnosis: Subsidizing coal power with Albertans’ health. 
 

What’s Changed about Climate Change?

Icey Branches - Hydro Wire - Newmarket, Ontario (1)
Photo: K. Perrotta, North York, Ontario

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE, February 24, 2016.

There are huge changes in the field of climate change:

1. There is a common understanding now that climate change is happening and poses a significant threat to the environment, human health, and economies around the world.  The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that, if all trends stay the same, the world is headed towards a 2°C increase in the average global temperature by 2050 and more than a 4°C increase by 2100, relative to the pre-industrial times (i.e. 1850-1900) (1).  

At the Paris Climate Conference late in 2015, people learned about the calamitous outcomes that would be associated with these temperature increases, and nearly 200 countries agreed to work towards goals that would “keep the temperature rise well below 2°C“.  Some, including Canada, offered to work toward goals that would keep temperatures below a 1.5° rise (2). 

2.  It is now understood that a huge transformation is needed to slow climate change. To keep the temperature rise below 2° over the 21st century, the IPCC estimates that global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) must be cut by 40 to 70% by 2050 compared to 2010.  To keep the temperature rise below 1.5°, emissions will need to be cut by 70 to 95% by 2050 compared to 2010 (3).  

Solar Panel on Farm, Haliburton, Ontario, Kim Perrotta
Photo: K. Perrotta, Haliburton, Ontario

3.  The energy sector IS changing!  Fossil fuels are giving way to renewable energies and energy efficient technologies.  The International Energy Agency (IEA) has noted that renewable energies are growing quickly in response to climate supportive policies. In fact, the IEA reported that, collectively renewables became the second largest source of electricity, with coal in the lead, in 2014 (5).  It

is forecasting that global demand for electricity will grow by 70% by 2040, but coal`s share of total electricity will drop by 30%, while renewable-based electricity will provide about 50% of Europe`s electricity, 30% of China and Japan`s electricity, and 25% of India and United States` electricity (5).

Improvements in energy efficiency restrained energy demand in 2015 to one third of what it would have been without them according to the IEA (5).  It notes that energy efficiency regulations doubled their coverage of industry, buildings and the transportation sector from 14% of the world`s energy consumption in 2005 to 27% in 2014 (5).  

4.  Renewable technologies are becoming cost competitive.  The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reports that solar photo-voltaic (PV) module prices have dropped by 75% since 2009 and that residential solar PV modules now cost 65% less than they did in 2008 (4).  The Climate Group predicts that the production costs of solar panels will drop by an additional 40 to 50% by the end of the decade (4).

Vestas Wind Energy reports that it has now installed 55,000 wind turbines in 74 countries on six continents (4).  It notes that the real cost of wind energy has dropped by 58% over the last five years putting wind in the same cost range as coal and natural gas in many jurisdictions (4). 

Wind Turbines, Leamington, Ontario, Kim Perrotta
Photo: K.Perrotta, Leamington, Ontario

5.  The investment sector is targeting energy efficient and low carbon technologies.  The United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) Finance Initiative reports that investors are forming coalitions to identify investments that do not involve fossil fuels (i.e., decarbonize their investments).  He reports that the Signatories to the Principles of Renewable Investment now represent over $50 trillion in investments worldwide and that green bonds, worth US$60 billion, were issued in 2015 (4).

6.  The energy transformation is expected to produce significant health benefits.  Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), has identified the Climate Agreement sought in Paris as “the most important health agreement of the century“.  She identified it as “an opportunity to promote actions that can yield large and immediate health benefits, and reduce costs to health systems and communities“(6).  For example, the closure of the six coal-fired power plants in Alberta is expected to produce air pollution-related health benefits worth approximately $300 million per year or $3 billion over 10 years (7).

7.The energy transformation can produce economic opportunities and jobs!  Estimates indicate that Canada’s clean energy generation sector brought in CAD$10.9 billion in 2014; up 88% from 2013 (CEC, 2015).  Estimates also suggest that the clean energy sector provided 26,900 jobs in Canada in 2013; up by 14% from the previous year (8).

8.  What does Canada need to do?  In 2013, Canada emitted 726 mega-tonnes (1 million tonnes or MT) of greenhouse gases: 25% from the oil and gas industry, 23% from the transportation sector, 12% from the electricity sector, 12% from buildings, 11% from energy intensive industries, 10% from the agricultural sector, and 7% from waste and other sectors (9).  Canada is committed to reducing GHG emissions to 622 MT by 2020 and 524 MT by 2030 (9).  Where are these emission reductions going to come from?  This will be the focus on negotiations between the federal government and the provinces over the coming months beginning this week.  

References:

  1. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.
  2. Watters, Haydn.   5 Key Points in Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  CBC. Dec 12, 2015.
  3. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2015. Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policy Makers.
  4. COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21). 2015. Climate Change 2015-2016. http://www.climateactionprogramme.org/bookstore/book_2015
  5. International Energy Agency (IEA). 2015. World Energy Outlook 2015 Factsheet.  Global energy trends to 2040.
  6. The Global Climate & Health Alliance (GCHA).   Health and Climate at COP21 and Beyond. 
  7. Pembina Institute, CAPE, Asthma Society, Lung Association of Alberta and NWT. 2013. A Costly Diagnosis – Subsidizing coal power with Albertans’ health.  Prepared by Kristi Anderson, Tim Weis, Ben Thibault, Farrah Khan, Beth Nanni, and Noah Farber.  http://cape.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/costly-diagnosis.pdf
  8. Clean Energy Canada (CEC). 2015. Tracking the Energy Revolution – Canada 2015. 
  9. Government of Canada (Canada).   Canada’s Second Biennial Report on Climate Change.