Air pollution from coal blights young lives, even before birth

Air pollution from Australia’s dirty coal-burning power stations needlessly causes 850 cases of low birth weight and at least 800 premature deaths per year. Coal is also the number one cause of the climate crisis. Clean renewable technology is available now to prevent these problems and protect young lives.

Credit – Unsplash

Our youth are a natural treasure and they must be protected. The benefits are intrinsic but as an economist, I am dismayed by the tragic waste of potential when children start their lives on the back foot.

And I’m not talking about the well-known shortcomings in childcare and early childhood education in this country. For decades too many children have started life at a disadvantage because of air pollution emitted from coal burning power stations that is absorbed through their mothers while they are still inside the womb.

Greenpeace’s new scientific report, Lethal Power: How Burning Coal is Killing People in Australia, paints an alarming picture. It reveals that every single year, air pollution from our ancient coal-burning power stations causes 850 cases of low birth weight in newborns. That puts them at increased risk of serious health conditions as adults, including cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and an increased risk of premature death.

The same report shows that air pollution from burning coal is responsible for around 800 premature deaths each year. And 800 deaths is a conservative estimate.

If the damage was limited to the communities that house these outdated pollution machines, it would simply be out of sight, out of mind for the vast majority who don’t live in these communities. But the deadly effects of burning coal travel far beyond the communities that house the power stations. Up to 22 percent of cases of low birth weight in newborns occur in states and territories that are not home to the source of the emissions. Coal burning power stations can degrade air quality over areas spanning hundreds of kilometres. Right now, Sydney and Melbourne residents are breathing in toxic chemicals emitted as far away as the Hunter and Latrobe Valleys respectively. Air pollution from coal is an almost omnipresent, yet invisible, danger.

As Liberal Party leader almost 30 years ago, I called for a 20 percent emissions cut by 2000. It’s been a constant source of frustration that in the decades since we have not even come close to achieving that modest target.

The size of the task has only grown since and while it would be easy to say that COVID has added a new layer of complexity, the fundamental challenge remains the same. If we are to come out of the pandemic and thrive, not just survive, then we as Australians need to have an honest conversation about how we got here in the first place.

As then Treasurer Scott Morrison said in 2017, which now seems a lifetime ago, “It’s coal!”

As well as damaging our health and shortening lives, coal is the number one driver of the climate crisis. Even the executives who work in coal won’t deny that. It’s why the world’s biggest miner, BHP, is ditching its thermal coal liabilities and part of the reason why AGL is replacing its ageing and unreliable Liddell coal-burning power station with renewables and big batteries.

The conservative thing to do would be to take the warnings of scientists seriously and address the problem, especially when we have overwhelming evidence. The scientists are not warning of a threat in the never-never. These deaths and a host of other illnesses are needlessly occurring right now.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have clean renewable energy technology to tackle the problem but unfortunately the big energy companies are blocking the way.

While the replacement of polluting energy with renewables backed by storage can happen within the space of a number of years, the health impacts can be greatly reduced by adopting pollution controls that are widely used around the world. It would shock most Australians that coal-burning power stations here pump out far more dangerous pollution than power stations in Europe, China and the United States.

The quick and decisive response to COVID by individuals, households, businesses, governments, and many of our institutions should serve as an instructive dress rehearsal as to how quickly we can all change our behaviour when we accept and respond to a challenge, both individually and collaboratively. The climate challenge dwarfs the COVID challenge – we need to recognise this!

If our political and business leaders agree that our youth are a natural treasure and they must be protected, then cleaning up the skies so they are no longer born already impacted by dangerous pollution would be a good start.

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John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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