The Toll of Coal

When we think of coal-fired energy, images of dusty train conductors shoveling heaps of black rock into a raging hot furnace might come up. These coals are used as fuel to heat up water for an engine that uses the steam to move 400,000 lbs of pure steel. Our main usage of coal is to generate electricity. This technological marvel was the catalyst of the Industrial Revolution ushering in a new era of productivity and technology. However while awesome coal might have been in the past, it’s not without its harm. It’s extremely dirty when burned, producing a multitude of pollutants that negatively impact public health and environmental wellbeing such as: mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter (1). Good thing that’s all in the past right? The sad truth is that global coal consumption and production holds the same share of energy production as it had 20 years ago (2); in 2018 it made up 28.1% of the world’s energy supply (3). Even with comparing two years side-by-side, 2017 from 2016 has seen global coal productions increase by 51 million tonnes (4).

Why is it that over all this time and through advances in renewable energy sources we are still choosing to consume coal? Demand. With rising energy demands and loose government regulations, there’s no onus on energy corporations to curb the production of fossil fuels. Canada is the third largest exporter of metallurgical coal in the world, with most of the production concentrated in British Columbia and Alberta; Canada also has thermal applications for their coal. Metallurgical coal refers to coal that is low ash, sulfur, and phosphorus that is burned in the absence of air so it can yield high-grade coke (not the drink!) (4). This coke is essential for steelmaking. These major exports garnered 6.8 billion in revenue in 2017 alone for Canada, and they are often shipped off to Japan, South Korea, China, and the United States (4). The demand and revenue for this product make it difficult for countries and companies to find more sustainable energy resources.

The government of Canada has made new regulations for coal and natural-gas-fired electricity in 2018  to phase out the coal-fired electricity by 2030 while keeping up the manufacturing of the metallurgical process (5). This plan is part of our major goal to have 90% of electricity from non-emitting sources by 2030. By doing this, Canada will be cutting our carbon pollution down by 12.8 million tonnes (5).

But we aren’t big corporations or the government of Canada; we are people that live in a natural gas-powered environment, so we have our own role in how we combat major usage of the harmful types of energy in our own lives. One way is through vehicle idling; idling is when a car is left running when the car is not in motion. The car emits gases while it’s running, the most important of those gases is carbon dioxide which is the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. A contribution we can make to our environment is reducing the amount of idling we do. A statistic from Natural Resources Canada stated that if each Canadian reduced their idling by three minutes every day, our national carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 1.4 million in a year (6). That is the reduction of 630 million liters of fuel; this is a win-win situation, helping our environment and saving on gas (6).

Besides driving, there are other ways to get around the city. The City of Edmonton has been working on developing infrastructure for both improving public transportation and increasing bike accessibility. More recently in spring 2017, there was an overhaul in the Edmonton Transit system that will aim to reflect what Edmontonians want (7). More information can be found here in the Edmonton’ Transit Strategy. Furthermore, a map of the new City Bus Network Redesign can be found here which highlights Local, Community, Crosstown, Rapid, and Frequent Bus routes. The improved bike lanes provide another opportunity for us to get around with no environmental impact. The City has released countless resources for Downtown, Southside, and West Central bike routes that are open all year round (8). The first year of bike lane operations in the City has brought amazing results, including increased bike trips downtown, increased female cyclist ridership, and an increase in public perception. Next time you’re out and about downtown, instead of “paying” for private parking, consider taking transit!

There’s no doubt that our generation is going to be facing the brunt of this global energy crisis. It is going to take a lot of change by governments and corporations in the coming years to tackle this issue. We may feel helpless at times, but there are still actions to be done to mitigate our impact on the environment in our daily lives. Along with being conscious of our transportation decisions, the following weeks will cover our household habits including green living practice and way to retrofit your home for energy efficiency.

Written by Allen Gao & Lydia Mutoni

Appendices

1. https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/coal-and-other-fossil-fuels/coal-air-pollution  

2. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125694190

3. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/6/15/17467164/energy-chart-renewables-    coal-climate-change

4. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/facts/coal/20071

5. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2018/12/canadas-plan-to-reduce-emissions-from-the-electricity-sector.html

6. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/efficiency/communities-infrastructure/transportation/cars-light-trucks/idling/4415

7. https://www.edmonton.ca/documents/RoadsTraffic/Transit_Strategy_June-29-2017.pdf

8. https://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/cycling.aspx

9. https://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/The_Downtown_Bike_Network_Interim_Report.pdf