Why Canada’s doctors and nurses support renewable energy: An interview with Gideon Forman

Gideon Forman is the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). CAPE’s work focuses on toxics and energy issues across the country.

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Please tell me a bit about yourself and about Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

I’m Gideon Forman, the Executive Director of CAPE. We like to say that we protect people’s health by protecting the planet. CAPE began in 1994, and I’ve been here for about 10 years.

We have about 6000 members now, and there has been quite a bit of growth over the last ten years or so. Not all of our members are doctors, though many are. We are asked to work on a whole range of advocacy campaigns to protect the environment, and right now we are focusing primarily now on toxics issues and on energy.

CAPE Executive Director Gideon Forman

On the toxics side, we do a lot of work on pesticides, trying to ban lawn pesticides to protect children’s health and the environment. We’ve recently been doing some work on what are called neonic pesticides, which are a huge threat to bees

We are getting closer on that issue, the province of Ontario has promised to reduce neonics on corn and soy by about 80 percent over a number of years. It’s a great first step. When they bring it in it will be the first jurisdiction in North America to regulate neonics, so that’s great. A number of groups have worked on that, we’re one of the ones to be privileged to be able to help on that.

On the energy side, we have been very active in trying to phase out coal-fired power, and as of April of last year, Ontario no longer burns coal to produce electricity. It’s a huge victory. My board feels very strongly that in addition to our “negative” message – no coal – we also want a positive message, and of course that’s renewables.

So we support the effort to ramp up renewables, particularly wind and solar, but renewables in general. Hydropower if properly done can make sense, biofuels can be used although not all biofuels are environmentally friendly. But certainly solar and wind. I think properly sited wind is a phenomenal resource and we are huge supporters of solar as well.

CAPE’s victories include phasing out coal in Ontario, a true accomplishment. Can you tell me a bit about CAPE’s role in the coal phase out?

CAPE’s billboards during the Ontario coal phase out created some controversy

We brought the health professionals voice in the last few years of that decade-long campaign. A lot of our work was to bring doctors and nurses in to meet with government, to talk about the health effects of burning coal, and to give them a little more impetus to phase out coal.

I do want to give the government a lot of credit, they were moving in that direction, but we urged them along talking about asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and all the other effects related to coal. This includes climate change, because coal is such a huge contributor to climate change.

We also ran an advertising campaign across the province in small papers under the banner “Doctors and Nurses Support Green Energy” with a picture of a doctor and nurse. We thought it was fairly uncontroversial but we were hammered quite a bit by some of the anti-wind folks for this.

But we thought it made perfect sense – we were doctors and nurses and health groups, the Lung Association, the Asthma Society were also a part – saying we need to phase out coal and ramp up renewables because renewables don’t cause air pollution, and therefore they don’t cause respiratory ailments when they are operating. So that was a big piece of our work, to educate the public about that.

You’re currently working in Alberta to phase out coal there – how has that process been different from your experience in Ontario?

It’s much more difficult. First of all, coal is a much bigger percentage of their electricity supply; about 50-60% of their electricity comes from coal. In Ontario at its peak it was in the 20% range. It’s a taller order out there because they are so reliant on coal.

The other difficulty out there is that the coal plants are mostly owned privately. In Ontario, the coal plants were owned publicly by Ontario Power Generation, so the government was able to close them much more easily. In Alberta, there’s the whole question about compensation. If the government requires the coal plants to stop burning coal, and burn natural gas or shut down completely, there are compensation issues, dollars at stake.

The government is also much less environmentally-inclined in Alberta. That’s not to say we’re not making progress – we’ve helped put it on the radar. Some of our doctors in Alberta are phenomenal ambassadors for this issue, they do a huge amount of work. I think the government is more receptive but it’s going to be a tough slog.

cape-alberta billboard 2014
After great success in Ontario, CAPE is now focusing its efforts to phase out coal in Alberta, including through billboards like this one

And have renewables been proposed in the same way as the “positive message” in Alberta?

We are certainly big supporters of renewables in Alberta, and Alberta has some world-class wind and solar resources. You think of Alberta as cold and northerly, and it is cold, but there’s also a lot of sunlight.

So the resource is there, the problem is that for ideological reasons, the government in Alberta is not willing to bring in something like a Feed-in-Tariff that we have in Ontario, which would be a big incentive to build renewables. Alberta won’t go that route. Not surprisingly, the renewables sector in Alberta is much smaller.

There is a lot of discussion about nuclear versus renewables for Ontario’s energy future – why should we be concerned about nuclear from an individual health and climate health perspective?

Our doctors have three major concerns about nuclear power. The first is around the waste, and what do you do with the waste. Some of that waste is radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s a justice issue. Which community should be burdened with having to store that stuff? Can we store it safely? Well, the answer is no one knows.

Don’t forget – we get 50-60 years of power from a nuclear plant. That’s its lifetime. After that, it’s nuclear waste; it’s radioactive waste until the end of time, essentially. Is it fair for us to get 50 years of power and then to bequeath this toxic waste to the future, effectively forever? So there’s the fairness issue. I wouldn’t want it in my community, and I don’t think any community should have to be burdened with that.

The second issue is around cancer. There is a fair bit of research coming out of Europe that shows that children, young children, up to age 5, living within 5km of nuclear plants in Germany are at greater risk of leukemia, a type of childhood blood cancer. There is some evidence that cancers spike in the proximity of nuclear plants. So that’s a big concern as well.

And the third concern is around climate, interestingly. The nuclear industry proposes nuclear as the climate solution, it’s “clean, green, emissions-free,” they claim. And it is true when you’re using the uranium within the reactor core you’re not producing carbon dioxide, but you have to look at the whole cycle, including uranium mining. You can’t run the plants without uranium, and you can’t get uranium without uranium mining.

All of that uranium mining, digging it up, crushing it, processing it, refining it – that’s done by very large diesel-powered equipment, all of which is emitting fossil fuel greenhouse gases. So if you look at the whole cycle, in fact, nuclear is quite carbon-intensive.

There’s an article in Scientific American that compares the carbon footprint of wind to nuclear, and Scientific American estimates that up to 25 times more GHG emissions come from nuclear than wind, if you look at the whole cycle. So we think it’s not even a climate solution. That’s why we’re very critical of nuclear and we need to ramp up conservation and renewables.

What inspires you to work in support of environmental and renewable energy issues?

It’s not always easy. There are a lot of serious problems out there, and it can be discouraging at times. But I guess what keeps me going is, number one, I have kids, and so I’m concerned for their future. I got involved years ago, almost 15 years ago, on the pesticide issue because I had kids. I saw in my neighbourhood in the early 2000s people spraying their lawns with lawn pesticides.

I became involved with a group called Toronto Environmental Alliance, and working with others we were able to get a ban on these lawn pesticides in Toronto in 2003. So I think it was the sense of what was happening right in my neighbourhood, not just to my kids but kids in general.

The other thing is that I’ve seen some progress in the last 15 years, and that is very heartening. After we helped to win the pesticides ban in Toronto, the government of Ontario banned lawn pesticides right across the province, and then we worked in the Maritimes to get some bans out there. Just last year we were able to win a ban on lawn pesticides in Manitoba, the first in Western Canada province-wide. So those victories show you can make a difference.

Al Gore (pictured here with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne) praised the Ontario government for its decision to phase out coal; Source: Together, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Al Gore Combat Climate Change by premierphotos is licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And perhaps the granddaddy of them all, the biggest victory, has been the coal phase out in Ontario. When you tell Americans about it their jaws drop. Al Gore came up here to congratulate Premiere Wynne on the coal plant closure last year, and I think he was quite genuine for his praise in the province. He works in the US and other jurisdictions, in lots of places in the world they are still opening coal plants and Ontario was phasing out their entire fleet of coal plants

I think the Ontario government could have done more to pat themselves on the back. There is no other jurisdiction in the world that has gotten out of coal as quickly. The plants represented emissions of about 6 or 7 million automobiles removed from the road. It’s an extraordinary thing of historic importance.

So those things really buoy me up and give me a lot of hope that we can do a lot more.

What advancement in the field of renewable energy are you most excited about?

What has been exciting is how the cost of renewables has come down so remarkably, in particular solar panels but also in general. The rollout of solar, for example, has also been enormous. All across the Southwestern US – California, Arizona – just a huge amount of solar photovoltaic and solar hot water heating has been installed.

The interesting thing for me was that a lot of the people embracing solar and putting panels on their own home in the Southwestern US were not necessarily people who had an environmental commitment. They did it because they saw it as a good investment, and they liked the sense of energy independence. There is a sense that they don’t want to be reliant on the Middle East or anyone else; they want to be independent and self-reliant.

What I find encouraging is that people who don’t necessarily have environmental leanings are embracing solar, and wind to some extent as well. I think that’s really exciting, if we can start to broaden the constituency for renewables to people who see it as a good investment, that’s when we can change things in a fundamental way.

Getting involved in the renewable energy sector may seem out of reach to some – what’s one action you can recommend for people who don’t know where to start?

I think groups like TREC Renewable Energy Co-op are really good, volunteering with them is great. Going to things like Kids World of Energy is really good as well.

SolarShare is really interesting, where people can buy a bond and invest in solar energy. We do a lot of trade shows, where we meet the public, and sometimes people say “I think solar energy is great and I love renewables, but I live in an apartment or I live downtown, or in a small home, and I couldn’t put a solar panel on my property.” The great thing about SolarShare is that they can have a piece of the action, if you will, they can be investors in solar energy without having to put up panels on their own property. I think that’s a great way.

I actually asked a solar company to come to my home, and they said since I’m downtown, and my roof is small and shaded, I wasn’t able to put solar panels on my house, but then I went out and bought a solar bond.

SolarShare ambassadors spreading the word about Community Power
SolarShare ambassadors spreading the word about Community Power

My organization, CAPE, are investors as well in SolarShare. My doctors like it because it’s supporting renewables, but also because it’s a darn good return on investment, a 5% return. So if we can find things like that that’s a really good way for people to get involved. Things that make environmental sense as well as pocketbook sense.


Thank you for speaking with me. Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t asked you about?

I want to speak about Our Power – I think it’s a great initiative. One of the things we as a movement need to do better is to tell our stories, and we have a phenomenal story to tell. Nothing is perfect in this world, but renewables in many ways are as good as it gets in terms of protecting human health, and the environment, and allowing us to have power.

And that’s exactly why I’m a supporter of Our Power – we need to go out and find these stories of people who are getting involved in renewable energy and making money while they protect the environment. It’s a win-win-win.



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