Federal coal plant announcement another government greenwashing exercise

Another day, another cunning PR move by the federal Conservative government. Just days before the G20 summit in Toronto, and after much criticism about being inactive on the environment and climate-change policy in particular, Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced plans to regulate coal-fired power generation in the country with new rules that won’t take effect until 2015. “The proposed regulations will apply a stringent performance standard to new coal-fired electricity generation units and those coal-fired units that have reached the end of their economic life,” according to a government press release, which was short on actual details, saying only that draft regulations will be public early next year and final rules published at the end of 2011. “Canada’s fleet of coal burning electricity plants consists of 51 units, with 33 coming to the end of their economic life by 2025. The gradual phase-out of traditional coal-fired electricity generation is expected to have a significant impact on reducing emissions. This policy, coupled with the commitments of the provinces, and companies who have committed to coal closures, will reduce emissions by about 15 megatonnes (Mt). This is equivalent to taking about 3.2 million vehicles off our roads.”

Here are the many problems I have with this greenwash: 1) The government says after 2015, so the signal this does send to the market is that industry should build as many coal-fired power plants as possible within the next five years, after which they will be grandfathered until a plant reaches the end of its life sometime after 2050; 2) The government’s claim that this policy will result in a 15-megatonne reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is based strictly on reductions directly related to coal and doesn’t take into account increased emissions likely to result from increased natural gas power generation; 3) This announcement was timed so that the government had something to point to during the G20 Summit when asked about their commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions; 4) The government says 33 of 51 existing coal plants (excluding new ones that will be built between now and 2015) will reach end of life by 2025. That means two-thirds of plants will continue to burn coal without any applied standards for up to 10 years after the introduction of regulations and one third after 2025. We simply don’t have time to wait for these things to wind down; we need decisive action now.

If this government was truly serious about eliminating the impact of coal, it would announce an immediate moratorium on new coal plants in advance of the 2015 regulations. If, after 2015, a company wants to use coal it would have to meet the same emissions profile of a high-efficiency natural gas generating station, which basically means it would have to have some sort of carbon capture and storage. For existing coal plants, a carbon tax or — less preferable — cap-and-trade system should be implemented and the monies collected should go toward cleaning up the grid.

I repeat: We need to call for a moratorium on new-build coal plants TODAY.

Fact: While 75 per cent of electricity generation in Canada is virtually emission-free, 13 per cent of our national greenhouse-gas emissions still come from coal, and by 2015 most of that will come from Alberta. In fact, if Alberta were to get off coal it could offset all GHG emissions resulting today from the oil sands industry. This would be REAL progress if we were serious about achieving it.

Prentice said this week that it’s a shame the rest of the world doesn’t recognize that Canada has a very low-carbon electricity system. We do have a low-carbon electricity system, but we can’t simply refer to that as an excuse for inaction. It’s not like any government in the last 30 years did anything to help achieve this low-carbon status. Simply put, we’re lucky to have it and lucky that generations before us had the foresight to develop it. Still, isn’t it disturbing that we’re among the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the OECD even though 75 per cent of our electricity system is emission free? We’ve got a long way to go before we can start bragging about our electricity mix.

One thought on “Federal coal plant announcement another government greenwashing exercise”

  1. I must say having worked in environment, climate change and emissions trading for both the government and private sector and with all of the starts and stops, i do not put any faith in these announcements until a regulation is actually passed into law. Governments can make as many announcements as they like but until a regulation is passed into law, that is when we will know if the government is serious about using regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If i can add another comment, a good first step would be to require mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions with accepted international quantification protocols with some form of rigourous audit or verification. After all, how does the saying go “you do not manage what you do not measure”

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