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Coal phase-out improved Ontario’s air quality

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Article published in Policy Options on February 28, 2017. A text by Erin Flanagan, Pembina Institute and Philip Gass, International Institute for Sustainable Development

Fifty-three to zero: this is the number of smog days in Ontario in 2005 compared with the number in 2014. Ontario had the better part of two full months of smog days in 2005, and none in 2014. It is undeniable that Ontario has seen pollution reduction and an improvement in air quality since phasing out coal-fired power plants — and that families have felt these health and environmental benefits across Ontario. As Ottawa and the provinces flesh out the details of a nationwide phase-out of coal pollution, we should bear this in mind.

The coal phase-out was not a silver bullet solution to improving air quality and cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Ottawa, but it was never intended to be one. No single sector or source is exclusively responsible for air pollution in Ontario, so ensuring policies exist to promote clean air and combat climate change requires effort across all sectors of the economy.

From 2005 to 2014, greenhouse gas emissions across the province declined by 7 percent. This trend was driven by a nearly 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario’s energy sector: in other words, it was driven in part by the coal phase-out, which reduced emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 7 million cars off the road. The Ontario Power Authority has called the phase-out “the single largest greenhouse gas reduction measure in North America.”

However, the coal phase-out was not just about fighting climate change. Importantly, reducing coal use in the province improved air quality, which improved health outcomes. It is difficult to make simple models of the complex interactions between air pollutants and their cumulative impacts. But the general impacts that smog can have on health, including irritation of the respiratory system, reduced and damaged lung function and aggravated asthma, are well known and widely accepted. The specific health benefits of the phase-out will take time to understand and quantify, but one thing we know for sure: the health and climate benefits of Ontario’s phase-out will be felt for decades to come.

In spite of the tangible effects of the coal phase-out, some critics have pointed to high energy prices as proof that the approach is flawed. However, the coal phase-out should not be treated as a scapegoat for high electricity prices. The electricity price hike experienced by Ontarians in recent years is unfortunate. While it might be tempting to blame the coal phase-out, the truth is that its main causes are deferred costs of electricity grid infrastructure investments and nuclear plant refurbishments. With the drop in the price of renewables and the adoption of more market-based mechanisms for incentivizing renewables, the cost of transitioning from coal to renewables (with a mix of other sources) has actually declined since Ontario started the phase-out.

In fact, Ontario’s leadership on coal has been recognized and replicated in other jurisdictions. Other provinces and the federal government are implementing plans to limit and phase out coal-fired power in Canada. Even in the United States, where motivation to act on climate change is expected to be limited under a Trump administration, energy-sector economics points to an ongoing decline in coal-fired power; electricity generation from natural gas surpassed coal-fired power generation for the first time in 2015.

This switch is an indication of the eroding position of coal-fired power in the US and Canadian electricity grid. The decline is expected to continue in light of a combination of factors: greater economic competitiveness from both natural gas and renewables, the cost of pollution controls and federal and state measures to price and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Importantly, coal-fired electricity generation in Canada will also look significantly less affordable in the future — under a carbon price of $30, $50 or even more per tonne — than in the past.

Ontario helped set the stage for the federal government and other provinces to phase out coal-fired electricity — one of the largest sources of pollution globally — by 2030. Canadians have a choice between providing international leadership on coal or continuing to delay the inevitable, while others act first and we endure the smog and respiratory illnesses that result.