Gideon Forman on winning the race to zero coal

Ontario's coal ban is old news to the press but a major feat to doctors.

There was a major, even historic, environmental announcement last week, but you can be forgiven if you missed it.

At a January 10 press conference, Premier Dalton McGuinty declared that the province would close its massive southern Ontario coal plants a year earlier than planned – a crucial step on the way to 2014’s complete phase-out of this dirtiest of fossil fuels.

But the media decided it was mostly a non-event and gave it scant coverage. Reporters I spoke to suggested it was that dreariest of dreary things: old news.

Ontario’s coal abolition may be uninteresting to journalists, but the health professionals I work with believe it’s an accomplishment of national and even international importance.

Consider the position of other provinces. According to the latest Pembina Institute figures, coal provides Alberta with almost 75 per cent of its electricity. In Saskatchewan the figure is over 60 per cent. Even in Nova Scotia, which has a strong commitment to renewables, more than 60 per cent of power is coal-fired.

Other nations offer encouraging promises, but few are moving as quickly as our province.

The American leaders, Oregon and Washington State, won’t eliminate coal until 2020 and 2025 respectively.

Pembina says Ontario will be the first jurisdiction on the continent to retire a coal-generating capacity in its entirety. Even progressive Finland – which claims it will be the first to quit coal in Europe – won’t shutter its last facility for another 12 years.

The climate benefits of Ontario’s decision are extraordinary. At their peak, our plants emitted as much pollution as 6 million cars. But also significant are the implications for workers’ safety.

A recent Scientific American article examined accidental deaths during energy production and found that in wealthy nations, coal is the most dangerous fuel to produce. By reducing the market for this material, we’re helping to close deadly mining operations.

Don’t be misled by the jaded press. The coal phase-out now happening in our province is one of the most hopeful environmental protection actions in the world.

Gideon Forman is executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (

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