In the midst of all the recent colourful political events south of the border, you might have easily missed an irony that Alberta would be wise to pay attention to. Even as the U.S. administration promised to roll back environmental regulations and climate commitments, U.S. coal plants continued to shut down. In fact, on the same day the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Agreement, three coal-fired plants were shut down. In 2016 alone, U.S. utilities retired more than twice the total coal capacity of Alberta.
Coal plants are shutting down across the globe because of their negative health impacts and low profitability. Coal has a hard time competing with cheap gas generation and increasingly cheap renewable energy. It is why financiers and utilities are stepping away from coal in all OECD countries. In growing economies, the investment in renewables is far exceeding that in coal power; and coal usage has peaked in countries such as China. As the full cost of electricity production (including the impacts of emissions) is accounted for, coal plants will only become more expensive.
The weight of the evidence is against those, such as Robin Campbell, who blame regulations and government policy for coal shut downs. However, Mr. Campbell is right in pointing out the need for a rhetoric-free transition plan that is sensitive to the needs of the workers and the communities. But such a plan must also be free of rhetoric about the future of coal; the phase-out is inevitable.
Jeyakumar goes on to stress the importance of retraining, which I agree is crucial both ethically and pragmatically. It’s a hard sell to tell a community that the good of the world requires them to rapidly transition away from an industry which has been an important economic driver. It’s callous and counterproductive not to offer material assistance for doing so.
First â€” any expectation that ‘business as usual’ in the sense of rapid growth in production will return is ill-founded. Most importantly, this is because an effective global transition to low-carbon energy requires countries like Canada to stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure as well as to develop serious plans to phase out fossil fuel production that already exists. Combined with volatile fossil fuel prices, the very high per-barrel cost of production in the bitumen sands, and the heavy environmental impact there is no reason to expect a return to the rapid growth projections which were once do dominant in Canada.
Second â€” the fact that any political jurisdiction happens to own coal, oil, and gas doesn’t grant a right to exploit these resources regardless of the impact on others. Based on what we have learned about the harm caused by climate change, it’s ethically and politically imperative that the arbitrary use of the atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon pollution comes to an end.
By all means we should be providing support to individuals and communities that want to transition away from the fossil fuel industry. What we need to collectively reject is the idea that any jurisdiction has the right to impose climate change on the rest of the world and future generations. People deserve support in transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence, but there is every reason for Canada as a whole to reject new fossil fuel export infrastructure, particularly bitumen sands pipelines and coal ports.
Contributors to original brief: Milan Ilnyckyj, Emily Barrette, Stuart Basden, Tim Berk, Tamara Brown- stone, Mie Inouye, Neal Lantela, Amy Luo, Monica Resendes, Jessica Vogt, Miriam Wilson, Cameron Woloshyn, and Jon Yazer
Contributors to update: Milan Ilnyckyj, Anne Ahrens-Embleton, Jacqueline Allain, Lila Asher, Jody Chan, Ben Donato-Woodger, Joanna Dowdell, Rosemary Frei, Graham Henry, Katie Krelove, Amanda Lewis, Ariel Martz-Oberlander, and Monica Resendes
Americaâ€™s gas boom has prompted its coal miners to seek new export markets, sending prices plunging on world markets. So long as consumers do not pay for coalâ€™s horrible side-effects, that makes it irresistibly cheap. In Germany power from coal now costs half the price of watts from a gas-fired power station. It is a paradox that coal is booming in a country that in other respects is the greenest in Europe. Its production of power from cheap, dirty brown coal (lignite) is now at 162 billion kilowatt hours, the highest since the days of the decrepit East Germany.
Japan, too, is turning to coal in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. On April 11th the government approved a new energy plan entrenching its role as a long-term electricity source.
The article also notes how costly coal with carbon capture and storage is, with a $5.2 billion power plant in Mississippi costing nearly seven times as much as a gas plant with equivalent output.
“On many measures, policies, actions, and technologies to shape consumption appear to be â€œimprovingâ€ environmental management. But too often the measures are close-up snapshots that cut out a much bigger, more complex, global picture of crisis. One common set of measures zooms in on consumer use of a product. Here, it is easy to and progress: simply compare the energy needs of a refrigerator or microwave or TV from the 1970s with a 2010 model. Another common set of measures zeros in on national consumption patterns. Here it is harder to and positive trends. Still, many existâ€”from higher recycling rates to more green buildingsâ€”for those who are looking for signs that capitalist economies are capable of shifting toward some form of sustainability.
Yet all of these measures need to be put into the context of a rising global population and rising per capita consumption in a globalized capitalist economy, a system that creates incentives â€” indeed, makes it imperative â€” for states and companies to â€œexternalize externalitiesâ€ beyond the borders of those who are actually doing most of the consuming. The challenge for environmentalists and policymakers is therefore about much more than influencing â€œconsumersâ€ â€” much of what is happening globally is beyond their control. Rather, it is about transforming a global system that is driving unsustainable production, much of which is increasingly masking itself as sustainable consumption. Fundamentally, this means that any move toward sustainable consumption will require much better full cost accounting and more equitable distribution of income: locally, nationally, and globally.”
Dauvergne, Peter. “The Problem of Consumption.” Global Environmental Politics, Volume 10, Number 2, May 2010, pp. 1-10 (Article)