Doctors, nurses and health care professionals from across Canada are urging the federal government to phase out coal-fired power plants within the next decade because of coal’s harmful effects on human health and its contribution to climate change.
The unusual activism from groups such as the Canadian Lung Association, the Asthma Society of Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, led by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, comes on the heels of growing global recognition of the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power generation.
“We urge the government of Canada to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2025 as a critical and immediate action toward achieving Canada’s emissions commitments and as a means to reap significant health benefits for Canadians,” reads a submission from 15 health organizations, representing more than 300,000 health professionals.
Despite the troubling impacts coals has on health and the environment, Canada is taking its time in weaning itself off the use of traditional coal-fired power plants to produce electricity, but the country could set an example to the rest of the world, suggests the letter to a Ministry of Environment and Climate Change federal-provincial working group.
“With an ambitious commitment to coal phase-out in hand, Canada can enter this year’s COP22 international climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco (to be held in November) as a leader on this issue. Canada’s action to eliminate coal-fired power would be a significant global victory,” the letter says.
Coal-fired power plants are responsible for up to 43 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally and their closure is seen as one of the fastest ways to dramatically reduce emissions. The majority of plants are in China, but coal consumption is starting to drop as the country restricts construction of new coal plants and closes those with the biggest pollution problems.
Coal generated about 10.6 per cent of Canada’s electricity in 2014 — mainly is Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — and is responsible for about 8.4 per cent of Canada’s emissions of greenhouse gases and for 72 per cent of greenhouse gases emitted from the electricity sector.
Ontario and Alberta have already taken steps to phase out coal plants, with Ontario closing its six plants between 2003 and 2014 — and seeing health benefits estimated at $300 million a year — while Alberta is starting to phase out coal-fired plants in 2018 with a target of having them all closed by 2030.*
The letter from the health professionals says “Each year, air pollution from coal-fired plants in Alberta, is giving rise to approximately 100 premature deaths from long-term exposures, 700 visits to Alberta’s emergency departments, 80 hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular ailments from short-term exposures and 4,800 asthma symptom days…The health impacts have been valued at approximately $300 million per year or $3-billion when extrapolated over a 10-year period.”
In addition to problems directly related to pollution from coal plants, there are equally alarming health consequences expected from climate change in Canada as people will have to deal with higher levels of smog and pollen as temperatures increase, a wider range for insect and tick-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus and Lyme disease, more avalanches, mudslides, thunderstorms, droughts, hailstorms and tornadoes, contaminated drinking water and food-borne illnesses, says the letter, which describes climate change as the ultimate health equity and social justice issue.
“Countries with poor health infrastructure and low incomes that are already struggling to feed their residents are the hardest hit by climate change, while countries with the highest standards of living, such as Canada, are among the largest emitters of the greenhouse gases that are contributing to climate change,” it says.
Terrie Hendrickson, coordinator of the B.C. Health Coalition — one of the organizations which signed the letter — said all the health professionals felt there was so much evidence showing the health consequences of using coal that consensus was reached.
“I think doctors are starting to get involved with climate change from a health care perspective,” she said.
“We are already starting to see the outcomes of climate change and we are seeing how it’s going to affect the most vulnerable in society.”
Although B.C. does not have any coal-fired power plants, together with Alberta, it is responsible for mining and exporting more than 80 per cent of the 60-million tonnes of coal produced in Canada each year and coal makes up almost half the shipments through the Port of Vancouver.
A B.C. government website says coal is a mainstay of the province and represents more than half of the total mineral production revenues.
“Coal is B.C.’s largest single export commodity,” the site states.
That means B.C. bears some responsibility for the health and climate problems from coal use world wide, says the non-profit Dogwood Initiative in a recent report that criticizes the B.C government for not including emissions from coal mined in the province in its emissions targets.
“The total global pollution from B.C. coal in 2008 — a total of 61.4 million tonnes — almost doubles B.C.’s reported contribution to global warming,” the report states. “While all the attention is focused on green energy, B.C is quietly becoming a major global player in perhaps the dirtiest, most polluting industry on the plant — coal.”
“Dialogue needs to begin about the relationship between being a climate leader and exporting polluting resources like coal.”
*Change Notice: Sept. 27, 2016: This article originally incorrectly stated that the health benefits of Ontario's coal phase-out were valued at $3 billion a year. The actual figure is $300 million per year, or $3 billion extrapolated over a 10-year period.
Image: Coal Power Plant, Battle River, Alberta. Photo: Benjamin Thibault, Pembina Institute