Get rid of coal: doctor’s orders

The following Victoria Day weekend guest post is by Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) – along with nurses and leading health charities – is running an advertising campaign to support renewable power and the speedy phase-out of coal-fired electricity. It’s a project unique in the country. Under the heading, “Doctors and Nurses Support Green Energy”, the ads – which are appearing in 15 newspapers as well as in magazines and online – tell readers that last year Ontario’s coal plants caused over 150,000 illnesses and over 300 deaths. They state: “Ontario doctors, nurses, and other health professionals support energy conservation combined with wind and solar power – to help us move away from coal.”
 
The ads are signed by organizations — such as the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, the Lung Association, CAPE, and the Asthma Society of Canada – which represent literally tens of thousands of health professionals. These professionals have long condemned air pollution for its damage to human well-being. In a landmark report entitled “No Breathing Room” the Canadian Medical Association calculated that, in 2008, air pollution killed 21,000 Canadians and it projected that, by 2031, the “number of deaths due to long-term exposure to air pollution will be 710,000.”
 
But CAPE’s campaign is different because it does more than just assess harm – as important as that is. This initiative, for the first time in Canada, sees health professionals  combating air pollution by urging both an end to coal and an embrace of renewables. Ontario has promised to close its coal-burning plants by 2014 but doctors and nurses want it to happen much sooner. They point out the province has more than enough coal-free power to close the plants right now. And they emphasize that coal is a disaster from start to finish. (Ontario is by no means the only offender. In Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan over 50 per cent of electricity comes from this fossil fuel; in Alberta the figure is 82 per cent.)
 
Coal mining devastates landscapes by literally removing the tops of mountains. Burning the fuel releases a host of poisons including lead and mercury (neurotoxins), chromium and arsenic (carcinogens), and components of acid rain (sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides). Perhaps most worrying is its contribution to climate change: Ontario’s coal facilities emit the greenhouse gas equivalent of several million automobiles. If global warming is the world’s most pressing environmental threat, banning coal is job number one. In an article he published last Spring, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman had this to say about the issue: “James Hansen, the renowned climate scientist who deserves much of the credit for making global warming an issue in the first place, has argued forcefully that most of the climate-change problem comes down to just one thing, burning coal…”
 
This is why doctors, nurses, and health charities have launched an unprecedented campaign for this fuel’s phase-out and the development of renewable energy. Unlike coal plants, wind and solar operations do not contribute to brain damage and cancer nor do they produce acid rain, climate change, and smog. That’s a hopeful thought as we approach this year’s Clean Air Day (June 8). And it’s a good thing to remember the next time someone attacks green energy as “unsafe”.

11 thoughts on “Get rid of coal: doctor’s orders”

  1. Glad to see somebody quoting James Hansen. As one of the early advocates of energy policy to address climate change, he’s got a lot of well earned credibility.

    Hansen is often quoted by those who still criticize GW Bush for allegedly killing the momentum toward formulating real US policy on climate. According to these critics, Bush and his “oil buddies” systematically marginalized Hansen and others who called for climate action.

    In actuality, Hansen SUPPORTED one of Bush’s centrepiece climate initiatives — the use of fast-neutron nuclear reactors to recycle used nuclear fuel at US power plants. Hansen still supports fast reactors; see http://bravenewclimate.com/2008/11/28/hansen-to-obama-pt-iii-fast-nuclear-reactors-are-integral/

    Unfortunately, the doctors you mention are dead set against anything that has the word “nuclear” in front of it.

    I say we listen to real experts like Hansen.

  2. With logic like coal plants are bad means anything considered green energy shouldn’t be challenged as being ‘unsafe’, it is a good thing Mr. Forman isn’t one of doctors implied by the name of the group.

    The recent Canadian Index of Wellbeing contained some interesting information on ground-level ozone, which might be one measurement useful to those claiming respiratory ailments continue to rise during a period where not only is coal use substantially curtailed in Ontario, but the emissions from US coal plants have been reduced by about half. Here’s a quote from the summary referenced at http://www.ciw.ca/en/Home.aspx
    “Ground-level ozone can be directly linked to human health – such as respiratory problems – and ecosystem degradation. It can impose billions of dollars of costs on society, especially in large municipalities with traffic congestion such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.”
    Traffic congestion eh?
    The next hour plus commute you have, reflect that maybe forcing IWT’s upon distant communities might not help much.
    Emissions from electricity generation are reduced in jurisdictions where energy is reduced, and/or the contribution of nuclear increases – but that likely has a minimal impact on the contribution of air quality in increasing respiratory ailments.

  3. Scott, good points and especially the last one, which is that reduced electricity-related emissions have practically no effect on overall air quality. The whole death-by-coal claim is pure bogus pseudo statistics trotted out by groups like CAPE (they should just change their name to Quacks Against Unpopular Sources of Energy, or QAUSE). It is pretty clear that they are just another lobby group trying to scare Ontarians into accepting more gas-fired power.

    If they really gave a damn, they’d be telling people to stay out of cities, where gasoline-powered motor vehicles emit demonstrably dangerous gases, like carbon monoxide, literally meters from where people breathe them in. But probably every time they wonder if they should do that, they remember that they themselves drive in the downtown cores of cities. Better to fixate onto something else, regardless of whether there’s true case to be made.

    I know somebody who recently learned of early-stage cancer via a radioactive CT scan. The CT scan saved her life. Good thing the doctor who prescribed it isn’t more interested in expanding the market for natural gas than in saving lives.

  4. Steve – I don’t think your solution is very practical.

    Everybody should move out of the cities? Cities are the only places that have the density to economically provide mass transit and are much easier to bike. These are very important alternatives to cars.

    It’s in the suburbs and rural areas that one is much more dependent on a car.

    If everyone leaves the cities all this will do is greatly accelerate urban sprawl, the use of cars… it sounds like you are suggesting we dig ourselves out of a hole.

  5. Douglas, please forgive my inept attempts to inject tongue-in-cheek sarcasm into the debate. I was trying to apply reductio ad absurdum to the doctors’ prescription. If they were really intent on cleaning up our air, that’s where one prescription might lead.

    You are totally right, cities are absolutely the cleanest ways for humans to live en masse. The only practical way for THAT to happen is to increase electrification — high-rises are uninhabitable without electricity, so the more high-rises the greater the electrical load.

    It follows from that that electricity has to be (1) cheap, (2) plentiful, and (3) reliable. The third criterion categorically rules out renewables, which the doctors claim to support. Their prescription for getting rid of coal and nuclear also rules out criterion #1 because it forces us onto gas.

    Gas is plentiful but neither cheap nor safe (google “natural gas explosion” and watch how many results come up) nor emission free.

    So what these doctors would have us do is to make our power far more expensive, thereby depriving the doctors of patients who can pay the bill.

  6. Hey, Steve, sorry, I can get kind of dim when it comes to sarcasm.

    I agree that being stridently anti-nuclear does not make sense. It should take priority over fossil fuels like coal, but considering the costs and heavy risks, we still should be promoting renewables.

    I do disagree with your argument energy has to be cheap (or at least Canadian standard of cheap). Look at Europe and Japan – they definitely don’t have “cheap energy” – their economies and living standards are often equal and even surpass Canada.

    And we need to invest in renewables – they won’t improve unless we continue to build them – its eventual non-renewables wil run out – no time like the present to get on it.

    At least, that’s my two cents.

  7. Douglas, okay let’s look at Europe and Japan. When people say “energy” they often mix motive and electrical power together. Let’s just look at electricity. Europe is heterogeneous, so let’s just take the two biggest countries, Germany and France. Germany leads the way in politically correct energy, renewables up the ying yang. Electricity-related emissions still through the roof — after all the talk and bragging, half German power still comes from coal. They need cheap and reliable power, after all; renewables provide neither. France, 80 percent nuclear, has the cleanest electricity system among Europe’s big countries. Ride an electric-powered TGV, and you’re zooming along on near-zero carbon electricity.

    I don’t see how renewables will continue to improve if we just invest more in them. Will the sun stay up all day if we put enough money into solar panels? Will the wind blow regularly all the time? The notion that they will magically come down in price is just a misapplication of Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is about optimization of transistors, not about wind currents or the rotation of Earth on its axis.

    Renewables cannot compete against nuclear or fossil; that is why they require prices that nobody would pay in an open market. When governments stop forcing rate payers to pay ridiculously high prices for their low-quality output, solar and wind generating companies will go bankrupt.

    North America needs cheap energy. All the countries of Europe would fit into Ontario and part of Quebec; of course Europe can handle higher transportation fuel prices (the tax revenue from gasoline/diesel pays for their social systems). Here, our winters are harsh, the summers brutal.

    Same as China; see http://canadianenergyissues.com/2011/01/12/industrial-strategy-and-cheap-energy-why-china-is-eating-and-will-keep-eating-our-lunch/

  8. Hi Steve, thanks for the reply.

    First off, renewables will improve as we invest in them. It’s not about the sun not providing enough energy – the sun provides more than enough – its about the technology effectively harnessing it That’s what R&D is about. Often when new technologies are introduced (such as renewables) they are initially inferior to their more established competitors (such as fossil fuels) because they have not been refined and commercialized yet.

    However, over time as they are refined, they out compete their rivals. Think about the computer vs. the typewriter, car vs. horse, steam engine vs. water wheel. When all these former technologies were created, they were inferior to their established latters. It sometimes took a couple of centuries of refinement.

    Luckily solar looks to be competitive by 2020 according to the article below.

    I suggest you read the Innovator’s Dilemma to get a better sense of how this works.

    Also, from what I have read, Moore’s law is applicable to solar panels. Their efficiency is improving and cost is decreasing at a expotential rate – check out this article http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=smaller-cheaper-faster-does-moores-2011-03-15

    You like to be quite critical of the inefficiency of renewables, but how reliable is nuclear – from what I understand, plants are shut down all the time. How effective is your standard ICE engine? About 20%?

    Yes, these are fluctuating power sources, but there are renewable solutions like geothermal that can back them up. If nothing else, they help us conserve baseline fuels (like natural gas) for the future.

    Another interesting point – countries in Europe can have extreme temperatures – if you think Canada has brutal summers, what do you think say Spain or Southern France are like in the summer?

    And above all, here is the achilles heel of your arguments – coal, nuclear, gas, oil are not renewable.

    Even if they are better, even if they will always been superior to renewables (a very questionable claim), even if they will always be cheaper…

    they are finite. We can’t use them forever.

    If we don’t develop alternatives one day human society will wake up and find they have used all the uranium, fossil fuels and we have no power sources.

    As I said, might as well get used to renewables, because sooner or later they are the future.

  9. Douglas,

    How reliable is nuclear? It provides more than half Ontario’s power all the time. Go to http://www.ieso.ca, look at the pie chart on the right. Nuclear always is the biggest provider, and at almost every hour of the day it provides AT LEAST half our power.

    My standard ICE engine starts more than 99 percent of the time. With reasonable maintenance, it runs as long as there’s gasoline in it. That’s why petroleum-fueled ICEs are the dominant vehicle technology on the planet.

    You talk about wind and solar like they’re new. They’re not. Humans have used wind for thousands of years. As soon as we discovered a faster and more reliable way of moving people/cargo across oceans (i.e., coal, then oil) we stopped using wind. That was 150 years ago.

    We won’t run out of uranium any time soon, even if we stick with the once-through fuel cycle (i.e. no recycling) and only mine easy-to-access uranium. And if we do recycle, there are hundreds of years worth of fuel still to be made.

  10. Again Steve,

    its not renewable. There MIGHT be hundred of years of fuel still left. But are you expecting that society will just stop using power after that?

    Might as well get into solar and wind now, because it won’t be any cheaper or easier later. Your arguments just can’t seem to get around this point.

    Also, you seem to think that somehow wind and solar will never be improved – its technology – it improves – just like fossil fuels. Remember, the steam engine and combustible engine took centuries to be reliable

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