Article originally appeared on Sketchy Science.
Canada has some pretty strong stereotypes associated with it. As residents of the Great White North, my partner and I, in this illustrated science romp we call Sketchy Science, have endured decades of ridicule, usually from our friends and neighbours to the south. In the end though, the stereotypes are often things to be proud of. Canada is usually depicted as an untamed wilderness of adventure and possibility. Unfortunately, like any other first world country, Canada is mostly an urban place. Sure, our large land area and small population result in vast forests and mountain ranges, but that is largely because 81% of us live in cities.
The thing about those cities is that they are the perfect counterpoint to the nature we are known for. They are made of concrete and glass and are anything but pristine. Nowhere has that historically been more true than in the city of Toronto, also referred to as “The Big Smoke” because of its tendency to be so smoggy that the very young and very old are often warned to stay indoors. At least, that used to be true. For the past decade, changes have been underway in Canada’s most populous city (it’s not the capital. If you think it is, you have some Googling to do). Actually those changes have been happening across the province of Ontario, and the results are pretty amazing.
Air pollution is a tricky thing to tackle. In a world where people treat their cars as members of the family and think of electricity as magic light that comes from holes in the wall it is tough to make a direct connection to the atmosphere and the air we breath. The truth is, it is all connected. Our cars burn gasoline and throw particles of soot, sulfur compounds and all kinds of other junk into the air (nevermind climate altering greenhouse gases). Even electricity contributes to the problem. Ontario may rely on hydroelectricity for a good chunk of its power, but historically coal was the name of the game. Coal power plants treat the air like a landfill.
The problem with air pollution is that it is terrible for human health. Research has shown that the common compounds found in the air of polluted cities can lead to minor upper respiratory irritations, chronic respiratory, heart disease, lung cancer, acute respiratory infections in children and chronic bronchitis in adults, aggravated pre-existing heart and lung disease, or asthmatic attacks. Even the rate of asthma has been climbing in North America as air quality has gotten worse. When we breath in heavy metals and volatile chemicals they react with the tissue in our lungs and throughout our bodies, causing inflammation and even impacting DNA expression.
It was with that in mind that politicians in Ontario made a bold move back in 2002. At the time, the province was home to 5 coal powered plants including the Nanticoke Generating Station, the largest coal plant in North America and the largest single polluter in the country, producing nearly 18 million tonnes of CO2 in 2007 alone. People in Ontario came together, put pressure on politicians to do something about the problem and the response was a commitment to close all of the province's coal power plants.
Over the next dozen years plants reduced their energy production and eventually shut down. At the same time, the province invested in cleaner energy like nuclear power, biofuels, solar and wind. In 2014 the last coal plant switched off its burners and the province was coal free. Since the phase out began, people have been waiting to see what the effect would be on air pollution.
They got their answer midway through April of this year when the Ministry of the Environment released it’s annual Air Quality Report. The research looked at four main components of air pollution (NO2, SO2, CO and fine particles that can get deep into the lungs) and found that the concentrations in the air had fallen between 30% and 46% over the previous decade. In 2014, Toronto had its first smog-free summer (0 smog alerts) in over 20 years. By contrast, Edmonton in the Canadian province of Alberta – where investment in coal power continues to grow – reported 25% poorer air quality than Toronto on its worst days despite having one-fifth the population.
The lesson in all this is that one single policy decision, supported by science can have a huge impact. Science and politics go hand in hand and the only way to build a better, healthier world is to rely on the evidence. Ontario is now working on passing legislation that will ban coal power in the province forever as they continue to invest in clean energy solutions. The future is looking bright in at least one part of the Great White North.