Photo: The end of coal in Canada?

(Credit: machinecodeblue via Flickr)

By Gideon Forman, Climate Change and Transportation Policy Analyst

In 2010, in an inspiring piece in the New York Times Magazine, "Building a Green Economy", Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote, "whatever else we do, we have to shut down coal burning over the next couple decades." Who would have predicted that just five years later Canada would be on its way to meeting his ambitious target?

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This week, the province of Alberta pledged to phase out its fleet of coal-fired electricity plants by 2030, taking just 15 years to rid itself of a fuel currently supplying over half its power. (The province deserves special kudos because federal regulations don't require the last coal facility to close until 2062!) Alberta promises to replace two-thirds of the coal with renewable energy, especially wind — an extraordinary decision by the jurisdiction that currently burns more coal than the rest of Canada combined.

The importance of abandoning coal can't be overstated. In addition to being the most carbon-intensive fuel, coal releases brain poisons such as mercury and carcinogens such as arsenic. It also contributes to acid rain by emitting sulphur dioxide. Going coal-free means protecting Canada's climate, our lakes and our health.

Alberta's announcement is the latest in a string of good news stories about the black rock's demise. Ontario's Ending Coal for Cleaner Air Act passed third reading this week; when implemented, it will build on the 2014 closure of the province's last coal plant, prohibiting the use of this fuel not just by the current government but any future one. Last week, Saskatchewan said it would source 50 per cent of its power from renewables by 2030. Manitoba is virtually coal-free already, using the fuel primarily for emergencies.

New Brunswick has only one coal-fired station that provides just 11 per cent of its electricity. Nova Scotia still relies heavily on fossil fuel, but its energy trajectory is encouraging, projected to drop from a depressing 92 per cent of power from fossil fuels in 2001 to 60 per cent (including coal) in 2020, with the remaining 40 per cent coming from renewables — not as impressive as we'd like, but a dramatic improvement. And if these jurisdictions enact a carbon price, which seems likely given federal government priorities, we could see the Maritime grid's coal use drop even further.

Are the days of coal-fired power in Canada coming to an end? It seems that way. If so, the new policy will be part of a heartening international trend that includes the American Clean Power Plan and Britain's just-announced 10-year coal phase-out. These strategies are not perfect — the problematic use of natural gas and nuclear power will continue — but there will be less combustion of the toxic black rock. For that we should be immensely grateful.

Paul Krugman may be surprised — and delighted — that the warning he issued in 2010 is on its way to being heeded, at least in the U.K. and North America.

November 25, 2015

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