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.

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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.

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