JULIAN CRIBB. The ‘Coal Toll’ and the moral vacuum.

Oct 30, 2017

While the focus of public debate about energy has been on monetary costs, it has almost entirely ignored the larger issue of human life, health and wellbeing. Julian Cribb sets the record straight.

On October 17 the Australian Government condemned thousands of Australians, now living, to a lingering, painful death. Possibly a great many more.

For all the squabbling over energy costs and efficiency, the complete absence of any discussion of the health consequences of the Turnbull Government’s National Energy Guarantee shows how devoid the present Parliament has become of the moral authority to govern. They care for dollars, not lives.

There is no lack of scientific proof, worldwide, that coal is a killer. The impact of coal dust and smog has been well understood since the 1840s and the hard evidence has mounted exponentially in the last 30 years, as the role of toxins and particles in lung, cancer and other diseases became better understood. According to Doctors for the Environment this evidence is now ‘overwhelming’. The Lancet recently reported 9 million people die worldwide every year from pollution – and named coal as the world’s worst polluter.

At the same time, there has been no lack of representation by ill-informed or wilfully-ignorant federal politicians that ‘coal is harmless’.

Last year coal killed a thousand people in China every day (a number augmented by our own coal exports). And it kills thousands of Aussies every year, through air pollution, heatwaves and the cancers ignited in our bodies by the toxic by-products of coal which occur throughout our food chain, living and working environments, air and water. The National Pollutant Inventory’s 2016 report indicates coal is our worst source of air pollution. Each year the industry releases over a million tonnes of contamination into the Australian air and environment.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare attributes 3000 deaths a year to air pollution, over half of which are due to coal and most of the rest to oil. The cost of this to the national health budget is estimated at $24 billion a year, which is two thirds of the entire defence budget! So, any policy which promotes the use of coal also promotes death by coal, and increases national healthcare expenditure and hence, taxation. Furthermore, this is a cost than can be readily eliminated – by clean energy and electric vehicles.

The National Clean Air Agreement (2015) talks about ensuring ‘that the community continues to enjoy clean air’ – but this is rhetorical window dressing. The evidence is that Australian urban air, even rural air close to mines and power stations, is deteriorating. For instance, the National Pollutant Inventory reports a 69 per cent increase in dangerous PM10 (coarse) particles in urban air, mostly from coal.

Then there is heat. Heatwaves in summer are currently predicted to claim around 2500 Aussie lives in 2020 and this number is expected to reach 4300-6500 a year by the mid-century as the world heats up. Heat currently kills more Australians than all other natural disasters combined. Coal is the single largest source of man-made CO2 entering the atmosphere and hence a primary driver of new heat-related fatalities as our capital cities suffer more days above 50 degrees C.

Then there is mercury, and other toxins. Our coal-fired power stations emit over 30 substances linked by medical science to asthma, lung disease, stroke, angina, heart attack and cancers in nearby communities. Australia’s ageing fleet of coal-fired power stations emits more pollution even than the current limit in China, and 666 times more than is allowed in the US. The industry is poorly scrutinised and no estimate of resulting Australian deaths has ever been made.

Coal and its combustion wastes are used to manufacture a wide range of consumer products from golf balls and plastic wood to vinyl flooring, paint, fertilisers, cosmetics, kitchen benches, plastic utensils, carpet backing and toothpaste. These wastes are highly toxic – due to the mercury and other substances mentioned above. Yet they enter the home and consumer’s bodies without our being in the least aware of their origin. Much coal waste also ends up in waterways or the environment. Again, no Australian death toll has ever been computed – but, like tobacco, it will eventually be found to be substantial.

Present indications are that coal may be claiming around 3000 lives a year – the same as the annual suicide rate, and almost three times the national road toll. Thus, over the coming decade some 30,000 Australians will die from coal, unless it is replaced by clean energy.

The Turnbull Government’s National Energy Guarantee, of course, makes no estimate of the number of deaths it will guarantee – but by dumping the Clean Energy Target and implicitly promoting coal in place of clean energy, or even prolonging its service life, it will certainly cause carnage. It is a political gamble based on the dubious promise of cheaper energy in exchange for thousands of dead Australians.

That the Government affects not to understand this basic, undeniable fact can be attributed only to two things.

The first is sheer, blinding ignorance. Only four per cent of federal MPs have a science degree and are therefore qualified to make informed decisions about technical and scientific issues in an overwhelmingly technical and scientific age. The incapacity of the current Australian Federal Parliament in this regard is terrifying. Paralytic climate, energy and water policy and the NBN are stark examples of what you get when you leave the technically incompetent in charge.

The second is political expediency, with more than a strong whiff of corruption. To what degree members of the federal Parliament and their parties are being rewarded by the coal majors for turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the national ‘coal toll’ can only be exposed by an Independent Commission Against Corruption. The degree to which they pretend not to know the consequences of their actions can only be revealed by a tsunami of lawsuits by the families damaged by their policies against the parties, individual MPs, governments and companies concerned.

Any government that takes a decision involving the sacrifice of thousands of its citizens’ lives to the interests of a particular sector or elite, has a duty of care to inform the nation – or else is devoid of morality and richly deserves what is coming to them.

Julian Cribb is a science writer and author of “Poisoned Planet” and “Surviving the 21st Century”

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