Ontario's move to zero coal shows leadership in tackling climate change

With coal often as the elephant in the room at the international climate talks, the Canadian province of Ontario has a good news story that shows important leadership in tackling climate change. Ontario is about to become the first jurisdiction in North America to move to zero coal. The province is shutting down its remaining coal-fired power plant and introducing a new law to keep it that way. Coal remains the dominant source of climate destroying carbon emissions world-wide. We can’t keep that up and tackle climate change. Countries from the United States to India and China are tackling how to deal with coal’s air and climate pollution. Ontario’s move shows that we can have a healthy, growing economy with good access to energy through alternatives as energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Let’s take a closer look at Ontario and what exactly it is they are doing. Ontario has a strong economy with a GDP of $597 billion and in the past has been coal-dependent. In 2003, coal supplied 25 percent of the province’s electricity from 6 plants that produced more than 7,500 megawatts.

The reality for Ontario in the heyday of coal-fired power? Smog and health problems.

Since 2005, Ontario has been closing down coal-fired power plants. In just the past four years, Ontario has built or contracted more than 7GW of new renewable energy projects projects. The coal phase out will reduce climate pollution by 30 MT – the equivalent to taking 7 million cars off the road. And whereas in 2005 Ontario has 53 smog days, so far in 2013, they’ve only had two.

Ontario’s story is an important one as we struggle with the need to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants around the world.

In the United States, coal consumption is falling. Utilities are deciding that coal-fired power plants are too costly and that there are cheaper and cleaner alternatives. America is tackling its climate emissions from new and existing coal fired power plants moving ahead with new regulations under existing Clean Air Act authority. Regulating existing coal-fired power plants is a critical step that is cost-effective and is better for our health.

The real elephant in the room is the potential rise in coal-driven air and climate pollution in rapidly growing economies such as China and India and in the developing world. From 2010 to 2040, non-OECD consumption could rise as much as 75 percent if today’s trend continues.

Recently, there has been a move to stop public funding of overseas investments in coal facilities, including by the World Bank. And investors are also raising concerns about the climate impacts of coal with some recent pull-outs from coal investments reported under headlines such as “Coal seen as new tobacco, sparking investor backlash.” But what of in-country investments in coal?

China is experiencing air pollution that is making international headlines and at its worst has been compared to living in an airport smoking lounge. To tackle the overwhelming economic and health imperative of the growing air pollution problem, China is implementing a cap on coal consumption in key air pollution regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong and is seeking to reduce the share of coal in total energy consumption to 65 percent by 2017. The challenge: China already consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. However, China has made great efforts to expand its renewable energy and energy efficiency resources in recent years and is looking to strengthen these efforts in order to address the environmental and health impacts of its heavy reliance on coal. 

India is also witnessing what expansion of coal can mean for air pollution and for water – especially in dry regions. India is very much on the frontline of the impacts of climate change including extreme heat and flooding. With so many people in India not yet having access to reliable sources of electricity, energy access for poor and rural communities is a very real need. The question is whether expanded dependence on coal is really the answer or whether both the energy access and development growth energy needs in India are better met through clean energy and energy efficiency.

In the international climate talks and at home, coal should not be the elephant in the room. We need to bring coal’s pollution and health impacts under strong public scrutiny make sure that our choices are based on the true costs of coal and the true potential of its clean energy alternatives. Ontario is showing us that there is a future that does not include coal pollution and that future can start right away.