The federal government recently announced plans to review, and possibly change, the regulations governing the life limits on coal-fired power plants.
When it comes to meeting Canada’s ambitious COP21 climate targets, coal not only makes an easy target but an essential one. Producing only seven per cent of our electricity, it is responsible for 11 per cent (roughly 77 megatonnes) of Canada’s carbon emissions, yet at the same time, involves a myriad public health problems that result from its combustion.
Stronger action on coal has been a long time coming. As far back as 2002, a Canadian Electricity Association (CEA) publication on climate recommended capping the life of coal plants at 40 years, compared to the 50-year lifespan permitted under current regulations. Indeed, many experts would argue that the economic and technical lifespan of coal-fired power plant is 40 years — in fact, the two most recent plants approved in Canada were said to have a minimum life of only 30 years in their regulatory applications.
In spite of this, when the federal government began developing regulations for coal plants almost a decade later, the initial proposal was for a 45-year lifespan. Opposition from vested interests led to the eventual decision to cap life at 50 years, but this decision was widely criticized and pressure to strengthen coal regulations has remained constant.
Now, with the federal government’s stated commitment to act following the Paris climate conference in December 2015, we have an opportunity to revisit this inadequate policy.
Plenty of role models, near and far
With coal phase outs already complete in Scotland and Ontario, Canada has many regions near and far it can look to for guidance. If successful in strengthening its regulations, Canada will join many other national and subnational governments around the world that have committed to accelerated action.
Planned coal phase outs around the world include the U.K., the Netherlands, Denmark, Los Angeles, and Austria by 2025, New York by 2020, and Oregon and Alberta by 2030.
Here at home, there are only three provinces with plans to burn coal beyond 2030: the last coal plant in Nova Scotia is slated to remain open until 2044, New Brunswick’s coal power will remain online until 2043, and Saskatchewan will continue burn the black rock until 2042 (not including the carbon capture and storage plant at Boundary Dam 3, which plans to be around a lot longer).
These plants remain incredible polluters, despite modern technologies that aims to burn cleaner fuel, and in 2015 three of the top five mercury releasers in Canada were coal plants. For sulfur dioxide it was nine of the top thirteen, and for nitrogen oxides, it was 10 of the top 13.
Truly dangerous substances
These are truly dangerous substances, implicated in respiratory disease, heart attacks, neurological disorders, and even death.
As the coal phase-out in Ontario has shown, when coal plants close, there are real and significant improvements in air quality. Between 2005 and 2014 (the year of the last coal plant closure), smog alert days decreased from a high of 53 down to zero.
In a world where the public health impacts of coal are well known and the climate crisis is rapidly accelerating, to coal burn for another 30 years is unfathomable. Doing so would make meeting our 2020 and 2030 emissions reductions targets nearly impossible and put thousands of lives at risk.
Greater opportunities to act on coal
Following the federal government’s recent announcement of a national carbon price beginning in 2018, the opportunity to act on coal is even greater. While a Canada-wide carbon tax is a good foundational policy for climate action, it requires stronger commitments to act on carbon pollution directly to be fully effective. Accelerating the phase out coal-fired electricity is a critical next step.
In 2014, the Canadian Medical Association passed a motion calling for a phase out of coal in 10 years, and their recommended deadline of 2026 is fast approaching. Another proposal by a large number of environmental organizations would have a different benchmark — back to a 40-year end of life, with no plants operating beyond 2030.
Canada is blessed with plentiful renewable energy resources. The cost of taking advantage of these resources is falling rapidly and the opportunity they represent to employ tens of thousands of people and transition Canada to a clean 21st century economy cannot be ignored.
It is time to embrace the future. We can improve air quality and reduce climate risks at the same time. Canada has promised the world it will act, and, perhaps for the first time, live up to its international climate commitments.
Canadians deserve no less.