Photo: What Canada's coal phase-out means

By Steve Kux, Climate Change & Energy Policy Analyst

On November 21, 2016 the federal government announced a plan to speed up the shift off coal, Canada's dirtiest power source. Under the new regulations, Canada will be free of conventional coal-fired electricity by 2030.
This is a major win for public health, the environment and the economy. The David Suzuki Foundation's climate team has been working on this issue for more than a decade.
This success would not have been possible without the tens of thousands of people who sent letters to the government through our "Say no to coal in Canada" online action. Thank you! We delivered an anti-coal letter to Parliament Hill, representing almost 35,000 people in Canada, on the day of the government's announcement.

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Why is the coal phase-out such a big win for the environment and climate?
Burning coal provides 11 per cent of Canada's electricity. But it's responsible for more than 70 per cent of carbon emissions from that sector. Around eight per cent of Canada's total carbon emissions come from burning coal for power.
In November 2015, the government of Alberta committed to phase out coal by 2030. Combined with that, ending coal power production in Canada by 2030 will likely be one of North American's single largest emissions reductions initiatives.
Not including Alberta's coal emissions, the federal government's announcement is equal to taking 1.3 million conventional cars off the road.

Why is the coal phase-out such a big win for human health?
Burning coal is one of the single biggest sources of carbon emissions on the planet. And it's terrible for human health. People in communities near coal plants breathe air laced with mercury, sulfur dioxides and particulate matter that penetrates into their lungs. This causes increased rates of childhood asthma, respiratory problems for the elderly and dozens of premature deaths each year. It's projected that the accelerated phase-out of coal power will save 1,008 lives, avoid 871 emergency room visits and save more than $5 billion in health-care and related costs between 2015 and 2035.

Click here to watch Dr. Joe Vipond talk about coal phase-outs around the world:

To find out more about the health and environmental benefits of a coal phase-out, see the Pembina Institute's report Out with the coal, in with the new.

What is carbon capture and storage and how will it factor in?
Carbon capture and storage is a technology built into coal plants to trap and hold emissions (usually underground) so they don't contribute to climate change. The federal government's goal is to close "traditional" coal plants and allow plants using CCS to capture 90 per cent or more of their emissions to operate.

CCS provides provinces with an option for cleaning up their electricity supply. But it's expensive. And the one coal plant in Canada currently using this technology has only been able to capture a small fraction of its emissions. Some scientists have voiced concerns about CCS. In Scientific American, Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University wrote CCS "is not working." Transitioning to renewable energy is a much cheaper option. Most coal-burning provinces will likely follow that path.

Methane (a.k.a. natural gas, fracked gas and shale gas) is another cheap option. But it also carries major climate concerns. It's the likely next target for a national phase-out as we shift to a clean energy economy.

What does this mean for Canadian coal mining and transportation?
Nothing. The coal phase-out only applies to emissions from coal burned on Canadian soil. The international precedent for climate change policies is limited to emissions produced within the country implementing the policy. Ensuring Canadian coal miners transition into the clean energy sector is a separate, important issue.

What does this mean for the price of electricity?
Nothing — for the vast majority of Canadians. For those living in provinces relying on coal, the effect depends on how their provincial government moves forward with a phase-out. Investing in high-cost solutions like CCS and nuclear power would likely increase electricity rates. Investing in gas plants will also likely lead to increased rates. For Canada to meet its international commitments, gas plants will need to close soon after coal plants.

The cost of renewable energy is low and falling. If provinces with affordable renewable energy capacity (such as Saskatchewan) invest in this growing sector, they can maintain affordable electricity rates, grow their economies and ensure long-term jobs. Revenue from carbon pricing and trading energy between provinces can also help offset the cost of updating electricity grids.

What does this mean for renewable energy?
The renewable energy transition will advance faster if coal investment and expansion stop. Solar and wind, in particular, are well-positioned to replace coal in Saskatchewan, for example. That province has tremendous, untapped potential.

November 28, 2016

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