Climate Change

The Liberal government is done with coal

Ottawa plans to completely phase out the use of coal-generated electricity by 2030

The Liberal government is done with coal

As part of its larger plan on climate action, the Liberal government announced today that it would phase out the use of coal to generate electricity across Canada by 2030.

“Eighty percent of Canada’s electricity currently comes from clean sources. The goal is to make 90 percent of electric power non-emitting by 2030,” Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said at a press conference earlier today.

What exactly does this mean? For starters, only 9.5 percent of our electricity needs come from coal-fired power generation. Four provinces in this country still continue to burn coal for electricity – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Ontario phased out coal-fired electricity in 2014, and in fact, just a year ago, Alberta’s NDP government pledged to completely eliminate the province’s dependence on coal to generate electricity by 2030.

The Liberal government’s move today is a validation of that policy and a reminder that provinces that continue to depend on coal need to get serious about investing in other forms of renewable energy, or risk the shutdown of coal-fired electricity plants altogether.

According to McKenna, this plan will reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions drastically — by more than five mega-tonnes over the next 15-odd years. “This reduction is equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the road,” she said.

The issue of eliminating coal for power generation is a highly contentious one. Canada is rich in coal reserves — it has 6.6 billion tonnes of recoverable coal, and an estimated 100 years of future production, concentrated mostly in the Western provinces of B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan. According to June 2016 data from the Coal Association of Canada, over 42,000 Canadians are directly and indirectly employed as a result of the coal sector, including those who work in the actual mining of coal, and the exploration, transportation and reclamation activities that come with putting coal to use.

It is tempting to see the Liberal government’s announcement today as a slap in the face of the Canadian coal industry, but the reality is that this policy will barely affect coal production. Canada produces roughly 69 million tonnes of coal a year — 34.5 million tonnes are exported, and a significant chunk of that balance is used in the steel-making industry.

“We need to distinguish between shutting down coal mines, and eliminating coal-fired power plants,” says Erin Flanagan, Director of Federal Policy at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank. “We shouldn’t forget that Alberta decided to phase out coal use in power generation, despite having a massive coal production industry.”

The Coal Association of Canada could not be reached for comment, but in March of this year, its president, former Conservative environment minister Robin Campbell hit back hard against the Alberta government’s plan to phase out 18 coal-fired power generators by 2030.

In an interview with the Calgary Herald, he implied that coal-fired plants west of Edmonton were in fact not negatively affecting air quality, and questioned the promise that replacing coal with renewable energy sources like water, wind and thermal power would create jobs. “They said they would create 50,000 green jobs,” he said. “They didn’t come close.”

Campbell isn’t alone in his dissatisfaction with the Liberals’ stance on coal. In a statement issued this morning, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall swiftly condemned the Federal government’s move, arguing that developing a pan-Canadian approach to climate change was something that had to be discussed and debated with the provinces. “The federal government has now violated that commitment for the second time, by making its second major policy announcement in advance of the First Ministers’ meeting in December,” the statement said, referring specifically to the Liberal government’s plan to set a minimum carbon tax.

No surprise there. 46 percent of Saskatchewan’s electricity comes from coal at this point, and completely reducing its dependence on coal would require a significant shift in Wall’s environmental policy to align more with the Federal government’s climate change strategy.

The Liberal government’s framework on climate action also comes as U.S. president-elect Trump pledges to plough on with his somewhat confusing plan to tear up the last eight years of Obama’s environmental and climate regulations and end the “government war on coal”.

Coal really is that bad, according to environmentalists. Although only 10 percent of our electricity comes from coal, 70 percent of this country’s greenhouse gas emissions are coal-generated. In contrast, 8.5 percent of Canada’s electricity supply comes from natural gas which only contributes to 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

A report from the Pembina Institute suggests that in 2014 alone, pollution from coal power resulted in more than 20,000 asthma episodes and hundreds of emergency room visits, putting significant financial pressure on the healthcare system. Pembina also claims that coal combustion accounts for more than 40% of global carbon pollution; following through on its commitment today will put Canada on par with the U.K., France and Denmark who have committed to coal phase-outs before 2030.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” says Flanagan. “Eliminating coal use is the core of our environmental policy, but much more needs to be done to hit our greenhouse gas emission targets.”

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