Clean air or greenhouse gases: where should Canada focus?

The federal Conservatives are, presumably, putting the final touches on their made-in-Canada “air” plan. It will be interesting to see what it contains. The Conservatives have indicated they want to focus on air pollution rather than greenhouse gases (GHGs)—better, they have suggested, to reduce the substances that directly harm humans

This is laudable, but the difference between air pollution and carbon dioxide, the principal GHG, is in large part a false distinction. Why? Because the overwhelming bulk of the emissions from industrial smokestacks and car tailpipes is carbon dioxide (CO2). Actual air pollutants, such as oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, are less than half of one percent of total emissions.

It is possible to reduce only air pollutants, while leaving CO2 untouched. Devices such as selective catalytic reducers (SCRs), which reduce nitrogen, and scrubbers, which remove sulphur, are in use in hundreds of coal-fired power plants around the world. All cars manufactured on this continent have catalytic converters, which remove nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds from exhaust emissions.

To take only industrial air pollution, focusing exclusively on air pollution means installing SCRs and scrubbers on many more fossil-fired generating units. This will cost billions (outfitting nine Ontario units, for example, would cost $3.5 billion). In the end, we will have reduced air pollution but will have left CO2 untouched.

On the other hand, addressing fossil emissions by simply using less fossil fuels accomplishes a dual goal: it reduces emissions of both CO2 and air pollution. In the power generating sector, the best way to use less fossil fuel is to shift more generation to low- or zero-emission sources.

I have suggested in previous posts that Ontario’s power generation sector is well-placed to accelerate exactly this kind of shift. Indeed, the current provincial government plans to at least maintain the proportion of nuclear power that feeds the grid. (Ontario’s electricity is already 75 percent emission-free, and nuclear is the main reason for that.)

If Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals were to increase nuclear’s proportion to sixty percent, they could displace enough coal-fired power to reduce emissions by some 20 million tonnes per year. Those 20 million tonnes are mostly CO2, but they also include nitrogen and sulphur oxides. Therefore, shifting more generation to nuclear achieves air pollution reductions as well.

The federal Conservatives should support Ontario’s move. But that’s easy for me to say. There are partisan considerations, as I mentioned in my October 4 post. However, basic political survival could trump ideology. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives will soon find out how their made-in-Canada answer to Kyoto flies in Quebec. If it flops, they will have to adjust it.

I might get my way yet.

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