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It’s time to clear the air on Canada’s coal-fired electricity

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By Kim Perrotta and Granger Avery

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Friday, Oct. 28, 2016 8:09PM EDT

Kim Perrotta is executive director, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and Dr. Granger Avery is president, Canadian Medical Association (CMA).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has started the clock on his pan-Canadian climate plan. Federal and provincial governments have until Dec. 8, 2016, to develop a national plan to meet or exceed the country’s Paris climate target. As health professionals, we agree with the World Health Organization (WHO): Climate change is the greatest public-health challenge of our generation. As such, we await the climate plan with bated breath – hoping it will solidify Canada’s reputation as a climate leader.

In 2005, Health Canada predicted that climate change would cause or exacerbate a wide range of environmental and health problems; including heat waves, insect- and tick-borne diseases, thunderstorms, droughts, hailstorms, wildfires, tornadoes and floods. Unfortunately, the decade since these predictions were made has shown their accuracy many times over.

Addressing climate change requires policy change on many fronts, but the phase-out of coal-fired power plants in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia must be a priority action.

Coal plants are a direct and significant source of air pollution. They release large volumes of air pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter that travel long distances. These air pollutants are clearly and consistently linked to increased rates of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases (lung cancer, asthma, respiratory infections), leading to an increase in emergency-room visits, hospital admissions and premature deaths. The closure of the 14 coal plants remaining in Canada will produce immediate health benefits and health-care savings for residents in several provinces.

Coal plants are one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gases. On a global scale, they are responsible for nearly one-third of greenhouse gases produced by all human activities. The International Energy Agency has identified the reduction of coal-fired power generation as one of the five climate policies essential to international success on climate change. The closing of coal plants is seen by many as the fastest way to dramatically reduce emissions on a global basis. In order to press this position at international tables, Canada must be able to demonstrate that it is willing and able to do the same at home.

Coal plants are a significant source of greenhouse gases within Canada. Before 2005, the year Ontario began to phase out its coal plants, coal was responsible for nearly 15 per cent of Canada’s GHG. Afterward, Ontario reduced its emissions by 20 per cent and the country’s total emissions by 7 per cent.

Fortunately, Alberta has made a commitment to close the six plants in the province by 2030; if other provinces make a similar commitment, Canada could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 8 per cent.

Momentum is building as communities around the world take action on coal. Ontario went coal-free in 2014 and Scotland in 2016; Alberta will go coal-free by 2030, New York State by 2020 and Britain by 2025.

Countries around the world are displacing dirty coal with clean programs and policies directed at energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable-energy generation, and Canada is well positioned to become a global leader.

We must join this international trend. In closing its coal plants by 2030, Canada will bring a strong voice to the call for coal-plant closures around the world, helping to meet its own climate commitments and improving the health of all Canadians.