As UN Climate Change Talks Go Nowhere, Ontario Bans Coal

Welcome to the Great Green North.

While delegates to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw continued fiddling while Rome burns, the government of Ontario, Canada, today moved to permanently ban coal-fired power plants.

“Our work on eliminating coal and investing in renewables is the strongest action being taken in North America to fight climate change,” Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario, said in a statement.

Wynne’s government next week will introduce the Ending Coal for Cleaner Air Act in Parliament. Unlike most such legislation, the Act will ratify what the government has already done – close down the coal-fired power plants that once supplied a quarter of the province’s electricity. Today, Wynne, and a visiting Al Gore, announced the shuttering of two huge coal power plants ahead of schedule, which will save $95 million in operating costs, according to the government.

Once a third big coal-fired plant switches to burning biomass over the next year, the legislation would ensure that no new coal power stations get built. The Ontario government estimates that burning coal results in more than $4 billion in annual health and environmental costs.

Ontario’s coal ban comes as new data shows that greenhouse gas emissions reached a record in 2012 and have risen 58% since 1990. That’s despite two decades of UN climate negotiations that were supposed to result in a 5% reduction in the world’s carbon spew below 1990 levels by last year. It’s just another sign that any progress in combating catastrophic climate change is happening on the regional level.  Quebec, for instance, last month signed an agreement with California to link their carbon trading markets.  And California, which has prohibited its big utilities from signing new contracts to import coal-fired electricity from out of state, also reached an accord last month with British Columbia, Oregon and Washington State – Ecotopia! –  to develop common mandates for cutting carbon emissions and promoting clean technologies like electric cars.

According to data released this week by the Global Carbon Project, a non-profit research institute, burning coal accounts for 42% of worldwide carbon emissions. Canada is the planet’s 17th largest emitter of coal-related greenhouse gas emissions, spewing 76 million metric tons (MtCO2) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2012. (The United States, in contrast, emitted 1626 MtC02 while China’s emissions hit 6990 MtCO2.)

Coal supplied 7,500 megawatts of electricity to Ontario. To replace all that dirty power, the province has been on a green-energy building spree, installing and commissioning 7,100 megawatts of carbon-free electricity, mainly from solar and wind farms. 

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Todd Woody is an environmental and technology journalist based in California. He has written for The New York Times and Quartz, and was previously an editor and writer at FortuneForbes, and Business 2.0.

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