Phasing Out Coal

Here in Ontario, we rarely give much thought to coal in Canada. After all, the last coal power plant in the province shut down in 2014. The coal phase out in Ontario had an extremely positive impact on human health and the environment. In 2005, there were 53 smog days in Ontario. In 2014, there were zero.[1] The Ontario Power Authority called the phase-out “the single largest greenhouse gas reduction measure in North America.”[2]

Coal is one of the most greenhouse-gas intensive means of generating electricity, and coal-fired power plants still account for almost 40 percent of the world’s electricity today. Across Canada, coal-fired power accounts for 11 percent of our electricity, but 70 percent of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.[3]

There are 35 coal power units across Canada, in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.[4] In 2015, Alberta announced that it would follow Ontario’s lead and phase out coal power by 2030.[5]

Transitioning off coal is one of the most important steps that can be taken to tackle climate change and meet our Paris Agreement commitment to pursue efforts to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C. To meet this commitment, analysis has shown that a coal phase-out is needed by no later than by 2030, in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and in the European Union, and by no later than by 2050, in the rest of the world.[6]

In the fall of 2016, Canada committed to phase out traditional coal-fired electricity, by 2030. Canada has set a goal of 90 percent non-emitting electricity by 2030.[7] These efforts are part of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. Minister Catherine McKenna has said that the plan will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by five megatonnes a year, the equivalent of getting 1.3 million cars off the road.[8]

However, getting a cross-Canada agreement on coal phase out is not an easy task. Both coal mining and coal-fired power plants are unevenly distributed across the country, meaning some provinces will take a harder hit than others. Government sources have said that Ottawa recognizes that provinces need flexibility and is willing to allow some coal plants to remain open past 2030, so long as equivalent emission reductions are achieved elsewhere.[9]

Environment and Health Impacts

Coal electricity is among the largest sources of air pollution in Canada. These harmful air pollutants include sulphur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and mercury.[10] According to the Government of Canada, in 2014, coal plants were 10 of the top 17 sources of sulphur dioxide in Canada, 10 of the 14 top sources of  nitrogen oxides, and 3 of the top 5 sources of mercury.[11] These pollutants cause significant environmental impacts, including acid rain, smog, and environmental damage.[12]

Air pollution from coal electricity also contributes to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, which have a significant impact on small children and the elderly, and add to the burden on our healthcare system.[13] Pollution from coal plants can lead to premature deaths and massive health care and economic costs due to lost worker productivity. A recent analysis has found that more than 800,000 people around the world die each year from the pollution generated by burning coal. A phase-out of coal will mean real improvements in air quality and in human health and longevity.[14]

Impact on Canadians’ Health from Coal-Fired Electricity in 2014:

Powering Past Coal:

Canada is leading the way in the global phase out of coal power. In fall 2017, Canada co-founded the Powering Past Coal Alliance to help accelerate clean growth and climate protection through the rapid phase-out of traditional coal-fired electricity.[15]

Canada and the United Kingdom successfully launched the alliance at the United Nations’ 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP23), in Bonn, Germany. At its launch, 27 national, provincial, state, and city governments endorsed the declaration to support the rapid phase-out of traditional coal power.[16]

The Powering Past Coal Alliance brings together a diverse range of governments, businesses, and organizations, which are united in taking action to accelerate the phase-out of traditional coal power. Alliance partners commit to achieving this phase-out in a sustainable and economically inclusive way, while providing appropriate support for workers and communities.[17]

The transition from coal is being accelerated by the fact that coal is no longer economically viable. Coal cannot compete with the rapidly declining cost of renewables and battery storage. Investors, developers, and utilities across the globe are by and large moving away from coal.[18]

What About India and China? 

Finger-pointing often happens when we talk about cutting emissions in developed countries. What about India and China? Why would we act when they continue to build coal plants and emit far more greenhouse gases than us?

Well, there are many misconceptions around China and its use of coal-fired power. China does have plans to build coal plants, but many of these plants are already being cancelled due to extremely poor air pollution and system overcapacity. The utilization of existing coal plants is dropping dramatically as well.[19]

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has concluded that the demand for coal generation in China has already peaked and is starting to decline, along with declining investments.[20] In 2016, China saw the commissioning of new plants decline by 25 percent, and at the same time it committed to double its solar and wind generation by 2020.[21]

India’s coal-fired power will likely follow a similar trajectory as China, with planned plants not even getting built. After all, solar is already undercutting the price of coal. Further, India plans to get 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.[22]

A Just Transition

Phasing out coal power needs to happen quickly, but we must not leave hard working coal miners and power plant operators in the dark. Setting a phase-out plan allows proper planning to help support the transition of workers and communities.[23]

Coal deposits are concentrated in western Canada, along with many of the coal-fired power plants. Minister McKenna has pledged federal support for the Government of Alberta’s Just Transition plan for coal workers, including flexibility on Employment Insurance and working with Western Economic Diversification Canada to support the communities affected by the phasing out of coal power.[24] She also announced her government’s intention to work directly with the Canadian Labour Congress to launch a task force that will develop a national framework on Just Transition for workers affected by the coal phase-out.[25] The work of this task force is slated to begin in early 2018.

Uneven Distribution of Coal Deposits in Canada:

What Could the Government Do?

The federal government has indicated that they’re willing to negotiate with provinces on a deadline for coal phase out and they may allow coal-fired generation to continue past 2030. This is unacceptable. The government must stick to the 2030 deadline for coal phase out across all provinces. This is the only date that is recognized as being in line with our Paris Agreement targets. Anything less than a 2030 phase out will put our Paris commitments in jeopardy.

In order to achieve this ambitious target, the federal government will need to work closely with the provinces to provide the appropriate financial, social, and job retraining resources needed for coal intensive communities to achieve a just transition. Will such a large skilled labour force, coal communities are a great location for renewable energy manufacturing hubs.

What Can You Do? 

Contact your MP – Tell your MP you want them to hold firm on the commitment to a Canada-wide coal phase out by 2030 because it’s the right decision for the health of Canadians and renewable technology is now readily available and inexpensive.

Get Active on Social Media – Help raise awareness that Canada is still a major coal producer and we need to get off this dirty fossil fuel if we are to meet our Paris Agreement commitments.

Support Renewable Technology – Invest your money in renewable energy companies or support a local renewable energy co-op. As the renewable energy industry grows, the price of this technology will continue to go down, making it more readily available for provinces currently reliant on coal.