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”.
In 2015, the International Panel on Climate Change (Panel) reported that: greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from human activity are now higher than any other period in human history; the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere is now higher than at any other time in the last 800,000 years; and it is “extremely likely” that emissions from human activity, along with other human activities such as deforestation, have been the dominant cause of global warming since the mid-20th century (1).
The Panel reported that, in 2010, approximately 49 Gigatonnes (Gt) of GHGs were emitted from human activity, and that fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes were responsible for more than three quarters of those emissions (1).
According to the Panel, there is fairly strong to very strong evidence that climate change has: more than doubled the occurrence of heat waves in some locations; increased heat-related deaths in some regions; increased extreme precipitation and the risks of flooding in some regions; increased extreme sea levels (e.g., storm surges) since 1970 as a result of increasing sea levels; and significantly increased the vulnerability of some ecosystems and human populations to heat waves, droughts, floods, and cyclones (1).
The impacts of climate change on human health and the environment are expected to become more extreme as we move through the 21st century. Under a number of different scenarios, it is predicted that climate change will: increase the frequency and intensity of heat waves and extreme precipitation; increase ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and sea levels; continue to melt permafrost and glaciers; increase the risk of extinction for many plants and animals; undermine the security of food and water supplies; and increase the displacement of people (1).
The severity of these risks, however, will vary significantly depending upon the actions taken to reduce emissions and protect carbon sinks. The risks are expected to be severe if global temperatures increase by 4 degrees relative to pre-industrial times. They are expected to be moderate to high if global temperatures increase by 1 to 2 degrees. While some of the risks of climate change are now unavoidable, the risks of climate change can be substantially reduced by aggressively cutting emissions of GHGs in the very near future (1).
In order to keep the global temperature from increasing by 2 degrees, models suggest that annual GHG emissions around the world must be reduced by 40 to 70% of 2010 levels by the year 2050. To keep the global temperature from increasing by 1.5 degree, annual GHG emissions must be reduced by 70 to 95% of 2010 levels by the year 2050 (1).
In order to meet these aggressive goals, the Panel has identified a number of key measures: moving away from the use of coal and other fossil fuels for the generation of electricity; enhancing energy efficiency to reduce energy demand; and encouraging behavioural changes to reduce energy demand. In the majority of the models that support a stable climate future, the share of low-carbon electricity supply (e.g., hydro electricity, solar energy, wind turbines) increases from current levels of about 30% to more than 80% by 2050 (1).
The Panel notes that many of the actions needed to reduce GHG emissions are associated with co-benefits or adverse side effects. It notes, however, that the co-benefits associated with “energy end-use measures” outweigh the potential for adverse side effects (1). For example when coal plants are phased out with investments in energy efficiency and renewable energies, significant health benefits can result from improvements in air quality (2). Likewise, when public transit and bike lanes shift commuters out of their vehicles, significant health benefits can result from improvements in air quality and increases in the levels of physical activity among residents (3).
Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE, February 17, 2016
The closure of 18 generators in six coal-fired power plants in Alberta would produce climate benefits for all Canadians and immediate air quality health benefits for Albertans. The Canadian government has proposed a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases to levels that are 30% below 2005 emission levels by the year 2030 to help slow climate change. Unfortunately, current projections suggest that Canada will be emitting 11% more emissions than 2005 levels by 2030 (1). This means there is an urgent need for dramatic action across Canada. Alberta is the most carbon intensive province in the country. It is currently responsible for 37% of all greenhouse gases emitted by Canadians and its six coal-fired power plants contributed 17% of those emissions (2). If Alberta were to phase-out these coal plants, as Ontario has done, it could reduce all of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 6%.
This phase-out would simultaneously produce significant health benefits for Albertans. In 2011, the six coal plants were responsible for one third of the sulphur dioxide, 10 per cent of the nitrogen oxides, and 6 per cent of the industrial fine particulate matter emitted into Alberta’s air (3). These air pollutants, and the fine particulate matter that is created in the air from them, are the common air pollutants that have been clearly and consistently linked to premature deaths, hospital admissions, and emergency room visits for conditions such as congestive heart failure, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma (4). These air pollutants have also been shown to increase the rates of chronic heart and lung diseases, including lung cancer and asthma, among the general population (4).
Using the Illness Cost of Air Pollution (ICAP) model, CAPE and its partners estimated that, each year, air pollution from Alberta’s coal-fired power plants give rise to approximately: 100 premature deaths, 700 visits to Alberta’s emergency departments, 80 hospital admissions, and 4,800 asthma symptom days (3). The ICAP model valued these health impacts at approximately $300 million per year or $3 billion when extrapolated over a 10 year period (3). These are preventable health impacts!
Policy changes can and do improve air quality and human health. Ontario, which phased out its coal-fired power plants between 2004 and 2014, has seen significant improvements in its air quality. The phase-out in Ontario removed 147,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 42,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides from Ontario’s airshed (5). While these air pollutants are harmful to health directly, they can also be transformed in the air into small liquid droplets that contribute to air levels of fine particulate matter.
Between 2000 and 2010, annual air levels of sulphur dioxide in the City of Toronto decreased by 79%, nitrogen dioxide levels decreased by 36%, and fine particulate matter levels decreased by 30% (7). Toronto Public Health reported that these improvements in air quality have have reduced: air pollution-related premature deaths in Toronto by 23% from 1,700 per year to 1,300 per year; and air pollution-related hospital admissions by 41% from 6,000 to 3,550 per year (7). In other words, improvements in air quality are preventing 400 premature deaths and 2450 hospital admissions per year in Toronto alone (7). While these improvements reflect policies implemented by several levels of government, the phase-out of coal plants in Ontario and south of the border, were significant contributors.
Today, the City of Edmonton, which is downwind from many of the coal-fired generators in Alberta, has higher levels of fine particulate matter than the City of Toronto. While Ontario has been phasing out its coal-fired power plants, Alberta has been increasing its reliance on coal as a source of electricity. By phasing out coal-fired power plants, Alberta could send a strong and positive message to the international community about its willingness to address climate change, while significantly improving the health of Albertans.
Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), and Dr. Joe Vipond, Emergency Room Physician in Calgary and CAPE member, November 2, 2015
Government of Canada (Canada). 2015. Canada’s INDC Submission to the UNFCCC, 2015
Alberta Government. 2015. Climate Leadership – Discussion Document.
Pembina Institute, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Asthma Society of Canada and The Lung Association Alberta and NWT (Pembina). 2013. A Costly Diagnosis: Subsidizing coal power with Albertans’ health.
World Health Organization (WHO). 2013. Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP Project.
Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA). 2002. Beyond Coal: Power, Public Health and the Environment. Prepared by Kim Perrotta.
Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (OMOE). 2014. Air Quality in Ontario 2013 Report.
Toronto Public Health (TPH). 2014. Path to Healthier Air: Toronto Air Pollution Burden of Illness Update. Technical Report.