Opinion: A vote against thermal coal exports is a vote for climate

By Melissa Lem | Opinion | September 15th 2021 | Published by the National Observer

Oil and gas pipeline drama has taken centre stage during this federal election campaign, with the Trans Mountain expansion and resurrection of Coastal GasLink becoming universal, debate-worthy political footballs.

Yet one fossil fuel has remained mostly out of the spotlight so far, unacknowledged by three of the five major parties’ platforms: thermal coal.

Two centuries ago, humans began using thermal coal, a deceptively cheap energy source, to heat their homes. Today, despite wide availability of cleaner alternatives, it is used to generate electricity globally and continues to drive industrialization of lower-income nations — but at tremendous cost to human and planetary health.

According to the International Energy Agency, coal power produces 30 per cent of global carbon pollution from electricity generation — over 10 billion tonnes of planet-heating greenhouse gases. Furthermore, Canada’s Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has stated thermal coal is the single-largest contributor to climate change.

This is why, this election, every party must take a stand on eliminating shipments of thermal coal from our western provinces and shores.

To its credit, Canada has been a global leader in the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which calls on all countries to phase out coal power. In June, Canada banned new thermal coal mining projects and plans to expand existing mines. This was, and still remains, a positive step in the fight against climate change.

It is difficult to understand, then, why Canada continues to facilitate distribution of thermal coal from domestic and American mines in Wyoming and Montana by train, then sea, to overseas markets — coal that Washington, Oregon and California refuse to ship due to its environmental risks. How can we ask the world to power past thermal coal then proceed to ship the same thermal coal through North America’s largest coal port, the Port of Vancouver?

The World Health Organization has stated climate change is the biggest health threat of the 21st century — while carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels is the greatest contributor to climate change. As a risk amplifier, climate change increases the burden of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and respiratory infections.

Climate change has already caused significant societal disruption, with drought and crop failure setting the stage for the Syrian civil war, migration from Pacific Islands swallowed by rising seas and lives lost from heat waves across the globe.

On top of planetary heating, air pollutants from coal plants have also been linked to chronic heart and respiratory disease and a host of acute ailments. Furthermore, thermal coal contains significant amounts of mercury, a substance that accumulates in aquatic food chains and the bodies of people who consume contaminated fish.

During pregnancy, unborn babies exposed to mercury are more likely to experience developmental deficits. By stopping thermal coal exports, Canada will clear our planet’s air and protect the health of future generations.

Until this summer, as a family physician in Vancouver, the health impacts of climate change still seemed distant. But after listening to sirens for three nights in my neighbourhood, treating more patients with heat illness than I ever had in my career, and mourning hundreds of avoidable deaths in my province, the reality of the climate emergency hit home. My first-hand experience with heat-induced suffering has made it even more frustrating to watch barge after barge of thermal coal leaving Vancouver’s ports to be burned overseas — exporting a climate criminal to nations even less-suited to weather its effects.

The fight against climate change through consistency across all of its economic activities needs to be a daily and deliberate choice for any government concerned about the health of its residents. The principles of sustainability call for us to take only what we need and leave the rest for our future generations.

The next elected federal government must move its energy policy into the 21st century and match its international talk with progressive environmental policies that include a ban on thermal coal exports — and we must all do our part by voting it in.

Dr. Melissa Lem is a Vancouver family physician and president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

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