December 1, 2013
Stephen Bede Scharper
We all breathe easier in post-coal Ontario: Scharper
The elimination of coal-fired plants in Ontario is a deeply hopeful story. It shows that progress can be made in fighting climate change.
A decade ago, in the team-taught core environmental studies course at the University of Toronto, my colleagues and I assigned the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) Smog Report as our touchstone text.
The report noted the severe health effects associated with air pollution in Ontario.
In 2000, for example, the OMA detailed, there were 1,925 premature deaths, 9,807 hospital admissions, 45,250 emergency room visits, and over 46 million minor illnesses engendered by increased Ontario smog levels.
Taken together, these fulsome effects take your breath away—literally.
These disquieting figures all jumped significantly five years later, as indicated in the OMA 2005 report, and were projected to continue to rise unless something were done about elevated levels of air pollution in the province.
One of the chief culprits, in addition to wafting pollution from the factories in the Ohio Valley, were coal-fired power plants across the province, the largest of which, Nanticoke, was responsible for 20 per cent of Ontario’s odious air.
Such alarming findings helped impel the Ontario Liberal government to pledge a phase-out of coal-fired power plants and embrace a green energy platform, enshrined in the 2009 Green Energy Act, providing financial incentives for switching to renewable energy sources.
The results constitute one of the most heartening “good news” environmental stories of the year.
According to the 2011 Air Quality in Ontario report, overall air quality in the province has “improved significantly” over the past decade, with dramatic reductions in carbon monoxide (35 per cent), nitrogen dioxide (41 per cent), and sulphur dioxide (52 per cent).
These are real numbers affecting the heath and well-being of millions of real people (including locally based climate change deniers and environmental skeptics).
While such sanguine air improvements were enhanced by the 2008 economic collapse in the U.S., which shuttered factories south of the border, they were also directly related to tangible and hard-fought policy initiatives, including not only the phase-out of coal-fired generating stations, but also emissions trading regulations, emissions controls at Ontario smelters, and Drive Clean emissions testing.
A champagne-popping moment marking such success occurred November 21 at the University of Toronto, with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announcing the closure of the Nanticoke plant at the end of this month, and former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore heralding Ontario for its leadership in addressing climate change.
Kathleen Wynne also announced the introduction of the Ending Coal for Cleaner Air Act, which would outlaw the burning of coal for power generation in Ontario. (The only remaining coal-fired plant in Thunder Bay will be converted to biomass by the end of next year.)
While millions across the province worked tirelessly at the grassroots level to achieve this victory, a special debt is owed to Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.
I remember Gibbons guest lecturing in our class a dozen years ago, noting how, in 1997, the majority of Ontarians didn’t even know about the five coal-fired plants in Ontario, the “dirty-smog-secret” of the province. In a recent conversation he recounted that “we knew we could get a dramatic reduction” not only in smog, but also in acid rain, mercury omissions, and a whole host of other pernicious pollutants if coal-fired plants went extinct.
Slowly but assiduously, by networking with key politicians, such as Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, and critical expert groups, such as the Ontario Medical Association, the Clean Air Alliance was able to build a broad-based coalition that convinced the province of the need to take action.
As Al Gore, flanked by premier Wynne, rousingly proclaimed, “Ontario has become the first regional jurisdiction in all of North America to take these steps on the burning of coal. Congratulations, Ontario!”
The elimination of coal-fired plants in Ontario is a deeply hopeful story. It shows that progress can be made in combating pollution and addressing climate change. It underscores that grassroots organizing can lead to structural, political changes that directly improve our environment and quality of life.
It also demonstrates that those who struggle for a cleaner environment are ultimately struggling for healthier human communities.
Thanks to all those who are part of this story, we will all breathe a little easier tonight, and for many nights to come.
Stephen Bede Scharper is associate professor of environment at the University of Toronto. His column appears monthly. Stephen.scharper @utoronto.ca