The Toronto Star
April 25, 2013
Laura Kane

Toronto air pollution down over past decade
A new report finds that major air pollutants are down between 24 and 55 per cent, but critics say the recession is as much to thank as conservation efforts.

Breathe easier, Toronto. Literally.

A new report shows that air quality in the city and in Ontario has been steadily improving over the past decade, with fewer smog days and less pollution.

Emissions of major smog-causing pollutants dropped significantly in the province between 2001 and 2011. Carbon monoxide declined 24 per cent, while nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide fell 36 and 55 per cent, respectively.

The report, released Wednesday by the Ministry of Environment, credits government policies like the phase-out of coal-fired electricity plants and mandatory vehicle emissions testing.

“It’s clear that government initiatives to improve air quality are having an impact,” said spokesperson Kate Jordan.

She said the coal phase-out has reduced related emissions by 95 per cent since 2003. Meanwhile, the Drive Clean program has cut smog-causing pollutants by 36 per cent.

Industrial air standards and emissions trading regulations have also helped reduce air pollution, she added.

But critics say the recession’s ruinous impact on manufacturing played a much larger role. NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns said emissions dropped significantly after 2008.

“That says to me that a big chunk of this is the recession and the loss of manufacturing,” he said. “You get hundreds of small plants closing and that has an impact.”

Angela Bischoff of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance said the recession played a minor role but the shutdown of heavily polluting coal plants was more important.

“The coal phase-out has been huge,” she said. “Ontario is really leading the continent in phasing out coal and we think that has led to a substantial improvement in our air quality.”

The province has gone from producing 25 per cent of its electricity from coal to just three per cent, she said. Bischoff is hopeful that number will be reduced to zero by the end of the year.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, because Ontario still burns a lot of natural gas and is burning more since the coal phase-out,” she said. “That’s the next direction the government needs to go.”

She said the number of smog days — days that a warning is issued because smog levels pose a health risk — declined even as Ontario’s gross domestic product increased over the past three years.

The province had nine smog days in 2011, the second-lowest on record since 2001. Toronto had just one smog day that year.

But more than half of Ontario’s smog still blows in from the U.S., primarily from the Ohio Valley area. The province has been working with U.S. state governments to reduce emissions, Jordan said.

Mother Nature is also to thank for Toronto’s cleaner air, as smog is intensified by hot, humid weather and the past few summers have been on the cooler side.

Air pollution is linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases and causes 9,500 premature deaths per year, according to the Ontario Medical Association.

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