Fraser Forum

Ontario coal phase-out did not end ’smog days’

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Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner for the City of Toronto, has been tweeting about how phasing out coal in Ontario has made “smog days” a thing of the past. She also credits the coal phase-out with enabling Toronto to meet its city council greenhouse gas emission targets.

The latter is a possibility, as coal certainly emits more greenhouse gas reductions than renewables. But the former claim regarding smog days is definitely incorrect.

As we showed in a recent study for the Fraser Institute, Ontario’s coal phase-out did not have major pollution-reduction benefits:

We find the elimination of coal was associated with a reduction in average urban PM2.5 levels by about 1 to 2 mg/m3 (about 6–12 percent from the peak levels), but the effect was not statistically significant in Toronto or Hamilton. We find no evidence that the coal phase-out reduced NOx levels, which were instead strongly affected by reduction in US NOx emissions. We find a statistically significant reduction in peak O3 levels from the coal phase-out, offset by a significant increase associated with natural gas plant emissions.

The “killing coal ended smog days” narrative is just that—a narrative, not a reality. For example, in 2003 Ontario coal plants generated 37 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity and there were 19 days with smog advisories. In 2005 the coal plants generated 20 per cent less power—30 TWh—but there were 2.8 times as many smog days—53 days. As another example, in 2012 the coal plants generated only 4.3 TWh of electricity and there were 30 days with smog advisories. So if we compare 2003 to 2012, we had 90 per cent less coal-fired power and 57 per cent more days with smog advisories.

So the coal phase-out did not play a major role in ending smog days. Changes in U.S. pollution controls did that.

What phasing out coal did reduce was the income left to Torontonians after they pay their electrical bills. As we showed in another study, electricity prices in Toronto rose by 71 per cent between 2008 and 2016, outpacing other provinces and badly beating the average power price increase in Canada of 34 per cent.

From 2008 to 2015 as we showed, electricity prices also increased two-and-a-half times faster than household disposable income in Ontario. In particular, the growth in electricity prices was almost four times greater than inflation and over four-and-a-half times the growth of Ontario’s economy (real GDP).

Everyone values clean air, and Canada has had a spectacular record when it comes to cleaning up air pollution. But misattributing that progress to governmental programs such as Ontario’s coal phase-out is misleading, and is only likely to misinform energy policy in other jurisdictions.


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