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In October, British Columbia's south coast faced its first atmospheric river of the fall.
The weather warning stirred up painful memories of the devastating November 2021 atmospheric river, when the resulting floods and landslides led to the loss of at least five lives, cut Vancouver off from the rest of Canada by road and rail, and made this the costliest natural disaster in the province's history. Canadians have reason to brace for more of the same: a 2022 study suggested that climate change has increased the odds of an atmospheric river like this by at least 60 per cent.
Climate-related disasters like flooding have severe health impacts. Individuals affected by flooding are at least five times more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. And when people displaced by catastrophic flooding return home, they face myriad health risks, including exposure to contaminated drinking water, industrial chemicals and mould.
As a family physician, I constantly witness the health consequences of extreme weather due to the climate crisis. Yet, as long as we continue to burn fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, we will continue to fuel these disasters.
Burning buried carbon stores (a.k.a. fossil fuels) is the leading cause of the climate crisis. So why are electricity grids across Canada burning these highly polluting fuels to power our homes and buildings when green alternatives exist? Clean solar and wind generation are now among the cheapest forms of electricity in Canada.
In August, the federal government released its draft of the Clean Electricity Regulations (CER) that would legislate the move away from fossil fuels for electricity generation towards sources of clean, renewable energy across Canada. The submission period for feedback on the draft regulations from the public, provinces and territories was recently closed.
If ambitious regulations are put in place, a net-zero electricity grid will be within reach by 2035, with massive benefits for human health.
As things stand, the Canadian electricity system is a series of disconnected provincial and regional grids, clean in some regions but highly polluting in others.
Alberta and Saskatchewan remain reliant on fossil fuel gas, even as the coal phaseout approaches completion, while hydroelectricity powers neighbouring British Columbia.
If ambitious regulations are put in place, a net-zero electricity grid is within reach by 2035, with massive benefits for human health, writes Deborah Curry @CAPE_ACME #cdnpoli #ClimateAction #COP28 #HealthForAll #ExtremeWeather #FossilFuels
In the Maritimes, wind-powered Prince Edward Island sits across the strait from mostly coal-powered Nova Scotia.
This is why the Clean Electricity Regulations provide such a huge opportunity. Phasing out coal will bring significant benefits for health and climate. As a major source of air pollution, coal’s health impacts include respiratory conditions, heart problems, kidney disease, poor birth outcomes, premature death and cancer.
As for climate impacts, coal is unmatched. Ontario’s coal phaseout, completed in 2014, was the single largest greenhouse gas emissions reduction effort in North American history. Alberta is poised to follow with a similar phaseout ending in 2024. It is time for all provinces to follow.
Phasing out fossil gas — often referred to as “natural” gas — is an equally big opportunity. Gas is made of over 90 per cent methane, which has more than 80 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.
Methane leaks at every stage of production and distribution of fossil gas. This, in combination with the carbon produced when burning fossil gas, causes gas to have a larger global warming potential than coal. Methane gas production has substantial adverse impacts on human health, including increased rates of childhood asthma and premature death.
The Clean Electricity Regulations provide a generational opportunity to build a clean, connected electricity system that unites us from coast to, coast, to coast. If paired with much-needed infrastructure investments — like efficiency programs, better energy storage and interprovincial grid connections — we could link clean energy supply in some regions to burgeoning clean energy demand in others.
Massive suffering due to the climate crisis is here, and we have already exceeded many safe Earth system boundaries.
I wish we could go back in time to stop the fossil fuel emissions that led to the 2021 climate disasters that killed my patients and devastated their families. None of us can change what has happened. We can only look forward.
Right now, we have the opportunity to protect our communities — and patients like mine.
As Canadians, we must demand the federal government pass strong regulations for a fossil fuel-free electricity system, without extensions, exemptions or loopholes.
This is our moment to make a profound difference for all life on Earth.
Deborah Curry is a family physician in Vancouver and a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.