Ontario Moves Beyond Coal

21 November 2013

After being subjected to the taste of coal in the air and statements about the inevitability of continued coal use for almost two weeks, at last we have exciting news from the Canadian province of Ontario. The provincial government has just announced it will switch off its last active coal-fired power plant within weeks.

This will make Canada’s most populous province the first jurisdiction in the world to complete a coal phase-out. Just 10 years ago coal was 27% of the energy mix in Ontario’s power sector, with a total capacity of 7,500 MW. This week’s announcement is an example of how political will, spurred by public concern and combined with smart policies supporting energy efficiency and renewables, can help break coal addiction. As a result, smog, dust and mercury levels have already fallen substantially, and GHG emissions from the Ontario electricity sector were slashed by 75%, making this the largest carbon reduction project in North America.

Note that this feat was achieved despite a federal policy environment in Canada that is entirely hostile to climate action and has been moving the country in the opposite direction. Case in point: in the same period of the coal phase-out unfolded in Ontario, emissions from tar sands oil, a resource aggressively promoted by the federal Conservative government, soared by roughly the same amount that the Ontario coal phase-out saved. So in effect the additional emissions from tar sands exploitation have cancelled the gains from Ontario’s flagship climate action program.

Federally promoted tar sands growth is also the single biggest reason why Canada’s own estimated emissions growth is 20% above the target pledged in Copenhagen.

While it’s a good thing the new Canadian environment minister decided to attend the Warsaw COP, ECO wants to remind her that claiming to play a leadership role on climate is not the same as actually being a leader. Perhaps she should have a word with her Ontario counterpart. Here are some relevant ideas for real climate action: promoting renewables and energy efficiency, getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies, phasing out coal and reversing oil growth are all good.

At the same time we are celebrating the Ontario announcement as a clear sign that the end of the coal era is coming, there are also encouraging signs internationally.

Yesterday the UK announced they would build on the new US policy to end financing of coal-fired power plants abroad. As the energy and climate minister rightly pointed out, ‘It is completely illogical for countries like the UK and the US to be decarbonizing our own energy sectors while paying for coal-fired power plants to be built in other countries’. Now it’s time for Japan, Germany and other countries that continue to finance coal abroad to join this positive effort to phase out global fossil fuel subsidies.

Congrats, Ontario.

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