Treating the climate with coal phase-out

*Reprinted with the permission of National Observer

Op-Ed By Dr. Courtney Howard, President, CAPE December 3, 2017

Canada, the UK and partners announced a global alliance to phase-out coal power at COP23 in Bonn, Germany. It was an honour to speak on behalf of the health community at the launch, as coal-power phase-out is a key recommendation of the 2017 Lancet Countdown Report and the Countdown’s associated UK brief, as well as the Canadian Brief which I co-authored on behalf of the Canadian Public Health Association.

The Lancet tells us that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century…and that tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.

Phasing out coal is about reducing the 44 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions due to coal—and the trauma, displacement and heat-related deaths associated with severe weather events due to climate change. It’s about a future with less burns and cough-inducing smoke clouds from wildfires, less conflict and migration, and less undernourished children.

Phasing out coal is also about seeing less kids with asthma puffers from air pollution—less costly ER visits for asthma, less time off school and work. It’s about less morbidity and deaths from the long-term health impacts of coal-related air pollution—cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, lower respiratory infection. It’s about less neurodevelopmental problems from mercury, and less polluted water and habitat loss from coal extraction.

Health professionals worldwide are beginning to treat climate change with coal phase-out.In Canada, organizations such as the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Canadian Public Health Association have been key contributors to coal phase-out commitments in Ontario, Alberta and Canada-wide.

Earlier at COP23, the World Health Organization Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom, repeated his commitments to make action for a healthy climate one of the four priorities of his presidency, and met with myself and other members of the Global Climate and Health Alliance to discuss collaboration on both adaptation and mitigation work in service of health.

 

At the Global Climate and Health Alliance Summit, held in association with the World Health Organization, we spoke with health professionals from across the world, including medical students, to teach them what advocacy techniques work and who they need to partner with in order to support coal phase-out in their home countries. With income being a major social determinant of health, health professionals believe that active support of workers is key to a just and healthy transition.

The health professions are late to the climate fight, but we learn fast, we don’t need a lot of sleep and we’re used to dealing with crisis.

As we move forwards towards actioning the coal phase-out in Canada and beyond, health professionals will be looking to see as much coal as possible replaced with renewables as opposed to natural gas. An increasing proportion of natural gas in Canada is being produced via hydraulic fracturing—for which increasing studies are demonstrating negative impacts. One assessment of the peer-reviewed literature on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing found that 84 per cent of studies on public health, 69 per cent of studies on water and 85 per cent of studies on air pollution found concerning findings. A direct transition to healthy, low-carbon energy should be our goal.

As an Emergency doctor I know what it’s like to act too slowly and to have patients die. The first time a child died under my care was on a pediatric malnutrition project in the Horn of Africa. It was one of the worst moments of my life. I also know what it’s like to act quickly, to do the right thing, and to pull someone from the spiral back to where we can thrive.

The health professionals of the world are applying the skills they’ve learned from treating people—to work to resuscitating the planet.

COP23 has seen new initiatives, new alliances, and new skills created. In partnership with the global health community and our decision-makers, I’m looking forward to treating the climate with coal phase-out and moving forward to a healthier planet.

Related Links:

Climate Change Health Impacts Demand Urgent Action

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE, November 3, 2017

“The human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible – affecting the health of populations around the world, today. Whilst these effects will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in society, every community will be affected.”

This is one of the conclusions expressed in the new report, The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, that was released on October 31, 2017.  Produced by the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from 24 academic institutions and inter-governmental organizations, the new report identifies 31 indicators that can be used to measure the impact, adaptation, mitigation, economics, and politics of climate change on a global scale.

The Countdown notes that global inaction to mitigate climate change is moving us towards a 2.6°C to 4.8°C increase in the global temperature by the end of the century – “a level which would be disastrous to health even with maximal adaptation efforts”.  It states that “adaptation has limits” and that action is needed to “prevent the potentially irreversible effects of climate change.”

The message delivered by the Countdown is urgent and dire, but not without hope.  It also reports that “Whilst progress has historically been slow, the last five years have seen an accelerated response, and the transition to low-carbon electricity generation now appears inevitable.”

In Canada, the Countdown was released along with The Lancet Briefing for Canadian Policymakers,  authored by CAPE President-Elect, Dr. Courtney Howard, the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), and the Lancet Countdown team. The policy brief examines several Countdown indicators that are particularly relevant to Canada.  For example, it reports that annual weather-related disasters in Canada have increased by 44% from 1994-2000 to 2000-2013, and notes that these events have affected hundreds of thousands of Canadians, if not more.

Canadians Impacted by Extreme Weather

  • 2013, Calgary flood – 100,000 people affected
  • 2014, Manitoba flood – 6,900 people affected
  • 2014, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories wildfires – poor air quality from smoke
  • 2015, La Ronge, Saskatchewan wildfires – 13,000 evacuated
  • 2016, Fort McMurray, Alberta wildfires – 88,000 people evacuated
  • 2017, Williams Lake, British Columbia wildfires – 24,000 people evacuated
  • 2017, Calgary and Vancouver – poor air quality from wildfire smoke

The policy brief reports that to meet the Paris Agreement, and keep global temperatures from exceeding a 2°C increase, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced to nearly zero by 2050.  This will require halving emissions every decade between now and then.

Several global policy priorities, which have the potential to produce immediate health benefits as well as long-term climate benefits, are discussed in the policy brief with Canadian data.  These include:

  • the need to replace coal-fired power plants with low to zero emitting sources by 2030;
  • the need to dramatically reduce the use of private motorized vehicles with public transit use, active modes of transportation, and telecommuting; and
  • the need to increase low-meat and plant-rich diets.

For more information, read the Lancet Briefing for Canadian Policymakers and see the CBC interview with CAPE President-Elect Dr. Courtney Howard.

Other Blogs on this topic:

https://physiciansfortheenvironment.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/a-national-cycling-strategy-a-triple-win-for-public-health/

https://physiciansfortheenvironment.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/coal-plants-have-a-significant-impact-on-air-quality-and-health-incomplete-facts-dont-change-the-truth/

https://physiciansfortheenvironment.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/ontarios-coal-plant-phase-out-produced-many-health-and-environmental-benefits/

Three Health Reasons to Close Coal Plants!

Photo: Ontario Power Generation-Demolition of Lakeview Generating Station, Mississauga, Ontario

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE

Working in collaboration with 15 health organizations from across Canada, CAPE made a formal submission to one of the four Federal/Provincial Working Groups that is collecting ideas to create the Climate Action Plan that will meet Canada’s obligations to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. 

The submission, co-signed by organizations such as Heart and Stroke Foundation, The Canadian Lung Association, the Asthma Society of Canada, and the Canadian Public Health Association, calls for the closure of all coal-fired power plants in Canada by 2025.  Our reasons are three-fold:

  1. The closure of coal-fired power plants globally is essential to the slowing of climate change;

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared climate change to be “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century” (WHO, 2016).  It has estimated that, between 2030 and 2050, climate change will produce at least 250,000 additional deaths each year: 38,000 due to heat exposure among elderly people; 48,000 due to diarrhoea; 60,000 due to malaria; and 95 000 due to childhood under-nutrition (WHO 2014a). 

Coal-fired power plants are one of the most significant emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) on a global scale.  They are responsible 43% of greenhouse gases from all energy-related activities (IEA, 2015).  The International Energy Agency has identified the closure of coal-fired power plants as one of the five climate policies essential to international success on climate change (IEA, 2015).

Before 2005, coal-fired power plants were responsible for about 15% of Canada’s greenhouse gases (NIR, 2014).  By phasing out is six coal-fired power plants, Ontario has reduced Canada’s GHG emissions by about 7%.  In 2014, coal-fired power plants in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were still responsible for were responsible for about 8.5% of all GHG emissions in Canada (NIR, 2014).  In order for Canada to effectively advocate for their closure globally, it must demonstrate leadership at home. 

  1. The closure of Canada’s coal-fired power plants will prevent heart and lung diseases, premature deaths, hospital admissions, and emergency room visits in Canada; 

Coal-fired power plants release large volumes of air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter that have been clearly and consistently linked to increased rates of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, and increased rates of asthma symptoms, respiratory infections, emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and premature deaths (WHO, 2013). 

In 2005, Ontario’s six coal plants were estimated to be responsible for more than 600 premature deaths, 900 hospital admissions, and 1000 emergency room visits in Ontario each year (OMOE, 2005).  These health impacts were valued at $4.4 billion per year (OMOE, 2005).  In 2013, the six coal-fired power plants in Alberta were estimated to be responsible for approximately 100 premature deaths, 80 hospital admissions, 700 emergency room visits, and 4,800 asthma symptom days.  These health impacts have been valued at approximately $300 million per year or $3 billion over a 10-year period (Pembina 2013).

Coal-fired power plants are one of the most significant sources of sulphur dioxide which is a precursor of fine particulate matter.  In 2014, with 736 emitters of sulphur dioxide in Canada, 12 of the top 25 emitters were coal-fired power plants; five in Alberta, three in Saskatchewan, three in Nova Scotia, and one in New Brunswick (ECCC, 2014a).

  1. The closure of Canada’s coal-fired power plants will help protect the mental capacity of our children from mercury.

By closing the remaining coal-fired power plants in Canada, we can help protect the cognitive development of our children, reduce health and social service expenses associated with neuro-developmental health impacts, and reclaim fish as a high-quality protein source that is available as a traditional food source or economic resource. 

Coal-fired power plants are a major source of mercury; a persistent toxic substance that accumulates in the aquatic food chain (CCME, 2005). Prenatal and early life exposure to mercury, resulting from the consumption of mercury-contaminated fish, has been linked to adverse developmental impacts such as reductions in cognitive abilities and motor skills (CCME, 2005).  Researchers have attributed 3.2% of intellectual disability cases in the United States to mercury exposure and valued these excess cases at $2.0 billion per year (Trasande et al., 2006).  Women of childbearing age, pregnant women, children, and populations that depend on fish as a traditional food source, are at greatest risk from mercury (CCME, 2005).

In 2014, nearly 2,400 kilograms of mercury were emitted into the air from 269 sources across Canada (ECCC, 2014).  Coal-fired power plants were the single largest source of those emissions; responsible for nearly 35% of mercury emissions nationally (ECCC, 2014).  Two of the plants operating in Saskatchewan were the two highest emitters in the country; responsible for approximately 16% of all mercury released across Canada (ECCC, 2014).

The submission from CAPE and its partners can be viewed here. 

The press release is available here.

References

  • Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). 2005. Canada-Wide Standards for Mercury Emissions from Coal-Fired Electric Power Generation Plants (2006).
  • Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC). 2014. NPRI Data: Mercury. NPRI-Mercury-2014
  • Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC). 2014a. NPRI Data: Sulphur Dioxide. NPRI-Sulphur Dioxide-2014
  • International Energy Agency (IEA). 2015. Energy ad Climate Change.  IEA-Climate Change 2015
  • National Inventory Report (NIR). 2014. Table A13-1 of Part 3.  UNFCCC Inventories 2014
  • Ontario Ministry of Energy (OMOE). Cost Benefit Analysis: Replacing Ontario’s Coal-Fired Electricity Generation. Prepared by DSS Management Consultants Inc. RWDI Air Inc. April, 2005
  • 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.
  • L, C Schechter, K.A. Haynes, P.J. Landrigan. 2006.. Mental retardation and prenatal methylmercury toxicity. Am J Ind Med. 2006 Mar;49(3):153-8.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16470549
  • World Health Organization (WHO). 2013. Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP Project.
  • World Health Organization (WHO). 2014a. Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/134014/1/9789241507691_eng.pdf?ua=1
  • World Health Organization (WHO). 2016. WHO Director-General Keynote address at the Human Rights Council panel discussion on climate change and the right to health. http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2016/human-rights-council/en/

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.

The ABC’s of Global Climate Change

Siur-thinkstock-480457436-Coal Stacks

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE, February 17, 2016

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).

51Systems-Thinkstock-490736941-Flooded Neighbourhood

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).

Wind Turbines, Leamington, Ontario, Kim PerrottaIn 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).    

References: 

  1. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2015. Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report for Policy Makers. https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf
  2. Pembina Institute, CAPE, Asthma Society, Lung Assocation 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
  3. Grabow, Maggie, Scott Spak, Tracey Holloway, Brian Stone Jr., Adam Menick, Jonathan Patz. 2011. “Air Quality and Exercise-Related Health Benefits from Reduced Car Travel in the Midwestern United States”,Environmental Health Perspectives.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1103440

Closing Alberta’s Coal Plants – A Boon for Canada’s Climate and Alberta’s Air Quality

coal stack header - cropped

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

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%.    

Figure 1: Map produced by Environment Canada; Notations added by Pembina Institute
Figure 1: Map produced by Environment Canada; Notations added by Pembina Institute

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!

Figure 2: Sulphur Dioxide Emissions by Sector, Ontario, 2003-2012 (6)
Figure 2: Sulphur Dioxide Emissions by Sector, Ontario, 2003-2012 (6)

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.  

For more information, see the energy page on the CAPE website or the Alberta Coal Phase-out Website. 

References: 

  1. Government of Canada (Canada). 2015. Canada’s INDC Submission to the UNFCCC, 2015 
  2. Alberta Government. 2015. Climate Leadership – Discussion Document. 
  3. 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. 
  4. World Health Organization (WHO). 2013. Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP Project. 
  5. Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA). 2002. Beyond Coal: Power, Public Health and the Environment. Prepared by Kim Perrotta. 
  6. Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (OMOE). 2014. Air Quality in Ontario 2013 Report. 
  7. Toronto Public Health (TPH). 2014. Path to Healthier Air: Toronto Air Pollution Burden of Illness Update. Technical Report.