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Shipping coal to China pollutes air in B.C.

Calvin Sandborn, Kyle McNeill & Rosie Jacobs, Vancouver Sun, April 15, 2014

Ship it today, breathe it tomorrow

Some would call it poetic justice. If we increase thermal coal exports to China, we will not only poison the citizens of Beijing and Shanghai, we will likely contaminate our own air.

Prevailing winds across the Pacific connect us directly with China’s unfolding environmental catastrophe. Indeed, disturbing new studies have found that on some days, up to 25 per cent of Vancouver’s air pollution already comes from China, largely from coal-burning plants.

It’s likely to become worse. China plans to increase the use of coal to produce electricity by nearly 40 per cent in the next decade and North American coal exports to China are slated to increase by 150 million tons annually. Ports in Vancouver, Prince Rupert and the Pacific Northwest are rapidly expanding to feed the insatiable demand of Chinese factories for thermal coal.

Pollution from Chinese coal-burning plants is a diverse stew, including sulphur dioxide, black carbon, ozone and carbon dioxide. But two of the most worrisome coal pollutants are toxic mercury and lead. We’ve spent decades trying to protect our children from these heavy metals that impair brains and nervous systems. For example, we’ve taken draconian action to ban lead from paints and gasoline, and to remediate the Trail lead smelter.

Yet in half the air samples taken in a recent California study, more than 30 per cent of the lead came from Asia. About 42 per cent of Canada’s mercury pollution now comes from China.

Quite apart from the health effects of air polluted with such contaminants, burning of coal in China is absolutely central to the question of climate change. In an era in which record-breaking weather events flood Calgary, level Stanley Park trees, and inundate Manhattan subways, we should not ignore Time magazine’s recent warning: China is burning almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. We won’t solve global warming until that changes.

However, instead of addressing these pollution and climate problems, we are planning to dramatically increase coal exports. Unfortunately, this will prop China’s coal economy and directly undermine its efforts to move to cleaner alternative energy.

How can we repair the Chinese pollution crisis that is now becoming our air pollution problem?

First, it’s important to understand what created this situation. The problem began when corporations moved factories to China to avoid North American pollution standards. Companies wanted to produce cheaper goods for North American markets, free of environmental and labour regulations. To supply dollar stores and Walmarts, we contracted out our manufacturing — and pollution — to Asia.

It is now clear what happens when you lack effective environmental rules. China has the most polluted air in the world — it has reduced the lifespan in northern China by more than five years, and led to stay-indoors warnings as far away as Japan. Ironically, this pollution is now coming home to roost in North America. In a global world, there is no place called away.

The challenge is this: How do we stop companies from evading our pollution laws by moving to Asia, then polluting our air indirectly? Just how do we control pollution from offshore plants that produce goods for us?

A recent National Academy of Sciences study has highlighted this emerging problem, and called for new international agreements to “confront the question of who is responsible for emissions in one country during production of goods to support consumption in another.”

Such new international agreements may provide one long-term solution.

But more immediately, governments at all levels need to carefully scrutinize the proposals for massive new thermal coal export facilities in B.C. and the Pacific Northwest. Governments should not approve such proposals without first determining the full impacts of shipping coal; they must ensure new coal exports will not compromise the air we breathe.

Calvin Sandborn is legal director and Rosie Jacobs and Kyle McNeill are students at the UVic Environmental Law Centre

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