A tired and offensive argument regularly used by the coal industry inspired me to write this piece. It goes something like this: selling coal to China is helping alleviate poverty by providing poor people with cheap electricity – don’t you care about poor people sitting in the dark in China? I take this very personally because of my family’s close ties to folks living in China, especially my son’s best friend Xiao Xiao.

– Laura

Our son Henry’s best friend lives next door to us in Burnaby, but only for a few more months. Five-year-old Xiao Xiao, an earnest little boy with a quick and dimpled smile, is here with his mother, Wei, who is spending the year as a visiting scholar at SFU. Soon Wei and Xiao Xiao will return home to toxic air and a completely different lifestyle in Tianjin, a port city in northern China.

While Henry will continue to breathe clean air, play outside nearly every day and take natural beauty for granted, our friends will wear heavy-duty masks to go about everyday life. Xiao Xiao will return to schools and daycares that will not let children outside on bad air days, with views so clouded by smog he can barely see a tree on the next block, let alone a mountain or the ocean.

Why is the air quality so bad in northern China? In large part because coal has been the main source of energy for decades. In fact, China has been importing thermal coal in recent years, which is why Port Metro Vancouver has quietly been shipping U.S. coal from Roberts Bank and is now considering a proposal by Fraser Surrey Docks to increase shipments by up to eight million tonnes a year.

Some coal industry voices have argued the cheap power provided by coal will help lift millions of Chinese people out of poverty. However, the story is much more complicated. As Beijing anti-pollution activist Lifeng Fang says: “The Chinese people are trying to clean up severe air pollution problems, so the last thing we need is more coal from the United States.”

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this July found life expectancy in northern China is 5.5 years lower compared with the south “owing to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality.” In other words, millions of lives have been cut short because burning coal has produced such high amounts of air pollution.

Air quality has become so bad in China that leaders were finally forced to act. This month the central government announced a sweeping plan to reduce pollution in three major metropolitan areas – including Beijing and Tianjin – and significantly cut back on coal consumption.

This is good news for Xiao Xiao, but not for thermal coal companies in North America. Because of coal’s devastating contribution to global warming and air quality, both the U.S. and Canada are moving rapidly to retire coal power.

If we allow B.C. ports to continue expanding their capacity to ship coal, especially U.S. thermal coal, our communities and our children will increasingly be at risk too. We are fortunate enough to not be threatened with the scale of pollution facing people in China. But shipping more coal means more trains, more handling equipment, more barges and ocean-going vessels – all of which put more particulate matter from coal dust and diesel emissions into our air. And, despite what paid industry consultants say, these really do present risks to respiratory and cardiovascular health. It is particularly bad for those unlucky enough to live, work or go to school near the rail lines and port facilities transporting coal.

Henry will be sad to say goodbye when Xiao Xiao has to return to China. Even more heartbreaking for us is the knowledge that he and his mom will have to go back to breathing heavily polluted air, and that we in Vancouver, in B.C. and throughout North America are complicit in providing a source of that pollution.

Fortunately, we live in a democratic country where people have a say over what happens to our air, land, water and health. If we can stop coal export expansion projects here, it benefits both our own children and the children who, by stroke of fate, happen to be born in China.

Laura Benson directs Dogwood’s Beyond Coal campaign and Jeremy Brown is assistant professor of history at Simon Fraser University, specializing in modern China. This article was originally published in the Vancouver Sun on Friday October 11, 2013.