The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) has teamed with the Lung Association and the Asthma Society to challenge provincial governments on their use of coal-powered electricity. Fresh from victory in Ontario, where the last coal plant will close in 2014, the formidable group has turned its attention to Alberta by teaming with the Pembina Institute.
Alberta generated 64 per cent of its electricity in 2012 by burning more coal than the rest of Canada combined, higher than the average in the US of 44 per cent. Coal causes more pollution than any other source of electricity, producing sulphur dioxide, mercury, lead, cadmium, hexachlorobenzene, dioxins and furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and arsenic. Globally, coal produces more GHG emissions than any other fossil fuel. In Alberta, GHG emissions from coal-fired electricity – 43 megatonnes – were only slightly less than all oil sand operations combined in 2011.
Nitrogen oxides react in the atmosphere to form ground-level ozone and are linked to the exacerbation of asthma, as is exposure to sulphur dioxide. Exposure to fine particulate matter is known to affect lung development in children and short-term exposure is associated with increased cardiac disease. Mercury and lead can affect neurological development during the early stages of life. Additionally, a dangerously warming climate increases the medical risks of heat exhaustion and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases from more frequent and severe heat waves, while potentially allowing the introduction of new parasites and pathogens. Finally, several substances emitted by coal plants are known, probable or possible carcinogens.
The health impacts are multiple and serious. Numerous reports in Canada and the US have quantified the human health and social costs of burning coal. The Canadian Medical Association’s 2008 Illness Cost of Air Pollution estimates the total economic damages of the health impacts of coal plants range between 0.7¢/kWh to 3.6 ¢/kWh. Additionally, Environment Canada determined the social costs of GHG emissions to be $26-104/tonne. The low end of this is an extra 2.9¢/kWh. Thus the total human health and social costs of burning coal is a minimum of 3.6-5.0¢/kWh. Pricing in the additional health and environmental costs of coal puts coal on par with numerous sources of low and non-polluting sources of electricity.
Currently there are several discussions underway that will affect the length of time coal plants are allowed to operate in Alberta before reducing different emissions, ranging from 40 to 50 years beyond their original commissioning date. Under the dominant federal policies, no coal units in Alberta will feel any regulations until the last day of 2019. Nearly two-thirds will remain immune from any emissions control through 2029. There are units that will be allowed to operate through the 2030s, 2040s, and even one into the 2060s without emissions regulations.
Ontario’s coal fleet, once the size of Alberta’s, will be phased out completely by the end of 2014. Nova Scotia, once more dependent on coal than Alberta, has legislated targets that require 40 per cent renewables by 2020, cutting its coal dependence in half. The coalition health and environmental experts believe that Alberta should show leadership by phasing out existing plants faster than the 50-year lives allowed under the federal regulations. Together they have put out a report called A Costly Diagnosis: Subsidizing Coal Power with Albertans' Health (pdf).
JANET KIMANTAS: Why is an emergency room doctor working to phase-out coal-fired power?
JOE VIPOND: That’s a good question and the answer is personal and professional. The personal is I have two children and they are impacted by both the non-carbon and the carbon emissions from these plants. Initially I was drawn to climate concerns and I helped work on the report we did in March. It became obvious pretty quickly that the health aspects of burning coal are more attractive to the media and the public than carbon did – reporting that 100 people are dying every year is immediately understood in a way that climate change occurring over many decades is not. Professionally, I don’t see the effects of coal in Calgary they way my colleagues do in Edmonton. There are ten coal-fired plants 40-50 km immediately west of the city and the health impacts are impossible to ignore. StatsCan reports from 2000-2001 show that rates of asthma in Edmonton are ten per cent above the national average – the only stand out in the country. The data was collected completely independently of any consideration of coal-fired power. But one logical explanation would be those coal plants.
JK: Why is getting rid of coal such a priority now?
JV: Well, the information on the health effects of burning coal is increasing rapidly. Even since our March report, the WHO has come out with their conclusions that coal emissions are carcinogenic. At the same time, we now have viable alternatives. We have cheap and abundant natural gas which has negligible non-carbon emissions. But much more important are the renewables. The cost of solar is dropping to the point where its pretty much on grid parity in some jurisdictions. Alberta also has ample wind resources. It is no longer unreasonable to look at alternatives to coal.
JK: You have a young family. How has being a father influenced your activism?
JV: Huge! My time spans have shifted – I no longer think in terms of my own lifetime but in terms of theirs. I’m concerned about what kind of world we are leaving behind and I’m very influenced by the concept of intergenerational human rights.
JK: In the 1980s, doctors helped reduce the risk of nuclear war through organizations like the Nobel-Prize-winning, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Can physicians play a similarly useful role with respect to climate change? If so, how?
JV: Well, we haven’t done enough so far. The CMA released a position paper in 2010 urging physicians to be part of the movement. Doctors have public respect, in a way that perhaps politicians don’t, and we are just now seeing our ability to shift policy. But we have had some victories. The move to phase out coal in Ontario was driven by an Ontario Public Health Association policy paper in 1999. The Ontario Nurses Association were also key drivers in that campaign.
JK: Do you have targets for phasing out coal in Alberta?
JV: We know that it isn’t happening tomorrow, but we think a ten-year time span like in Ontario is reasonable. Natural gas has a role to play but we need to develop renewables. Let’s at least give renewables the same subsidies fossil fuels get.
JK: Do you see your challenges in Alberta as being similar or different than those in Ontario? Will the culture in Alberta present more difficulty?
JV: The current government is very much tied to industry and that’s the hardest thing. But still, there are almost no royalties from coal, so it is not a big revenue generator. There are almost no jobs in these highly mechanized power plants – politically it should be easy. But the big coal producers in this province, TransAlta and Atco being the big ones, are very politically tied.
JK: How do you square the reduction of coal in Alberta with the huge emissions growth in emerging economies – specifically China?
JV: I hear this a lot – why should we do anything? Well, the problem is humanity-wide and we all have to be part of the solution. The whole world has to reduce its reliance on coal and that includes Alberta and China. China has at least been pro-active with renewables. Alberta has not really done anything.
JK: What are your next steps?
JV: Well, we released our report in March and did a media blitz in September. Now we are meeting with MLAs and power brokers from all four parties. The three in opposition have said that they support our efforts, but we need to get that down on paper. There has been a lot of push-back from the ruling Conservatives, but we continue to meet with them and hope for some flexibility. The easiest thing to do is insist that coal-fired plants meet the same emissions standards as natural gas plants.
JK: Has your activism resulted in any personal burn-out?
JV: No. Actually, the opposite of burn-out. It’s too easy to throw your arms up and say “how can we do anything?” But it’s very empowering to be fighting for positive change. A lot of people feel a sense of environmental hopelessness and it’s amazing how much better it is when you are actively working. There is a lot of power that comes from people being actively involved.
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