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Obama coughs up the solution to coal pollution

The US President is switching the conversation on climate change over to human health. Doctors George Crisp and David Shearman say he’s on to something.

President Barack Obama has made one of the most important health statements ever made by a leader. It will save thousands of lives and much suffering.

This week, in launching his new climate change plan, Obama focussed on the immediate negative impacts of pollution from power stations on people’s health. As Crikey pointed out, it’s a new way of framing the issue of reducing emissions, an approach that has not been much tried by Australian policy-makers.

Obama’s decision recognises the health and new economic reality of coal mining and combustion; that safer and cheaper alternatives exist.

And the health effects are considerable. Mining of coal produces dust and unseen “particulates” which are inhaled by those living in surrounding communities and near to coal corridors. Combustion of coal produces a cocktail of toxic gases, including sulphur dioxide and Volatile Organic Compounds, as well as particulates, the smallest (PM2.5) being inhaled and absorbed into the human body. Those people in towns and cities which use coal-fired stations to supply electricity suffer the greatest exposure.

Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to increased respiratory symptoms, decreased lung function, worsening of asthma, irregular heartbeat and increased risk of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and premature death.

In the short term, as occurred in the Victorian town of Morwell (where a fire in a nearby coal mine burnt for weeks), exposure can cause heart attacks and asthma attacks. Over decades it causes heart disease, lung cancer and emphysema.

Children, the elderly and those with pre-existing illness are more vulnerable. That’s why Obama chose to make his major climate announcement at the Children’s National Medical Centre.

So what’s the size of the problem? In Europe, 18,200 premature deaths, 8500 new cases of chronic bronchitis, and more than 4 million lost working days each year, due mainly to respiratory and cardiac disease, are attributable to air pollution. That comes at a cost of 42.8 billion euros a year.

In the US a study by Epstein at Harvard Medical School found the costs of coal-fired electricity would increase by up to 300% once health and other environmental costs were included.

In China air pollution caused more than 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010, mostly due to coal combustion. These amounted to 15% of total deaths.

In Australia studies on the health effects are meagre but it can be extrapolated that of the 3000 deaths per year from air pollution, coal is responsible for 1500.

In China air pollution caused more than 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010, mostly due to coal combustion.”

In 2009, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering estimated the health costs resulting from coal generation to be $2.6 billion per annum (or $13 per megawatt hour) primarily relating to ambient air pollution in Australian cities.

In his speech, Obama noted that under his proposal to reduce pollution from coal-fired power stations by 30% by 2030, 100,000 asthma and 2100 heart attacks would be prevented in the first year, rising to 150,000 and 6700 attacks respectively.

These figures reflect the 2011 published results of the US Environmental Protection Association (EPA) assessment of the effects of the Clean Air Act’s finding that the US economy had saved around $30 for every $1 invested in reducing pollution. A remarkable rate of return! Overall the economic value of these improvements is estimated to reach almost $2 trillion in 2020.

And don’t forget economics. The killer economic blow for the coal industry is the study by respected US economist William Nordhaus. His conclusions have not been contested by any other economists. Coal-fired power generation was found to produce health and environmental damages from 0.8 to 5.6 times its value added. In other words, the damage caused is worth at best 80% of the net value of the industry and at worst 5.6 times greater. These remarkable findings indicate that at best, coal-fired power generation has no net economic value to the community. At worst the industry is a huge economic burden.

The health and economic case has been made for the rapid phase-out of coal without even mentioning greenhouse emissions. When these are added to the equation the case is doubly compelling, for coal is responsible for a third of world emissions with further climate-related health and economic costs from drought, flood, famine, heat stroke and injury.

Obama recognised he had to grasp this issue, not easy when the House and Senate are hostile. He has recognised the economic gain in reducing health externalities. He knows that coal has to be terminated if the world is to remain liveable and by moving to renewable energy now, he will put the US economy ahead of competitors. He is fortunate to have a national mechanism to protect heath bypassing the realm of squabbling, obstructive, elected representatives — the independent EPA, ironically developed by former president Richard Nixon.

Alas, Australia has no comparable mechanism to protect our health.

As was the case with smoking and tobacco control, the medical profession has been among the first to recognise the risks associated with coal. Doctors for the Environment Australia made representations to the previous government on air pollution, to raise health issues, but was unsuccessful. This may well be due to either allegiance to or intimidation by the powerful coal and gas lobby.

This is a missed opportunity, as explaining the health co-benefits of reducing emissions may well have proved reason enough to act for those still unconvinced by the need based on climate change alone. It may also prove much harder for the vested interest industries to denounce action to safeguard Australians’ health.

* George Crisp is a General Practitioner and WA Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia, David Shearman is a Physician, E/Professor of Medicine, and Honorary Secretary, Doctors for the Environment Australia

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  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Obama…moving to renewable energy now

    What was that again?

    Here’s what Obama has actually said he’s moving to: ‘demand-side energy efficiency programs; renewable energy standards; efficiency improvements at power plants; co-firing or switching to natural gas; transmission efficiency improvements; renewable energy storage technology; the retirement of inefficient power plants, nuclear energy, and market-based trading programs’

    What is it with the propensity of so many writers on these subjects (‘Doctors for the Environment’, seriously?) to project their own prejudices with such intensity that all references to decarbonisation approaches other than renewables get blanked down the memory hole?

  • 2
    JennyWren
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    At worst the industry is a huge economic burden.

    The link is broken.

  • 3
    AR
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Duffer - have you no conscience whatsoever?

  • 4
    Andrew Dolt
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Dunno if Duff is free of conscience, but he definitely ain’t free of prejudice. Why shouldn’t doctors be for the environment, Duff? Do you think the environment has no health implications? Seriously?

    I’ll ask you again, Duff: why are the fans of nuclear power boundlessly optimistic about the ability of human technological ingenuity to make the dangerous and complicated nuclear process cheap and safe, despite apparently intractable problems? At the same time why are they deeply pessimistic about the ability of human technological ingenuity to make renewable energy, which is already cheap and safe, ever more efficient and battery capacity ever greater, despite excellent progress? They wouldn’t be blinkered by prejudice, would they?

  • 5
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    AD, you’ve got it arse-about, it was more the ‘doctors’ part was I having a go at, not the environment. First, being ‘for the environment’ is a motherhood statement. Second, what special capability or insight is it that these doctors think they’re bringing? Are the WWF, ACF etc somehow beneath them? You might as well have ‘Plumbers for the Environment’ or ‘Quantity Surveyors for Public Health’, etc.

    Your mischaracterisations abound. First, the thing about favouring nuclear as a tool in the decarbonisation box is that there’s no need for ‘optimism’ that it might be effective: it’s already been demonstrated on a major country scale by the likes of France. It’s a proven solution. Far from being ‘dangerous’, on any objective measure nuclear is the safest per-unit energy source we have, not excluding solar and wind. Far from being intractable, the problems of nuclear are minuscule in comparison to the benefit derived, dwarfed by the products of other industries. How many times does it need to be said that multiple waste solutions already exist?

    Prejudice? Only one side of the debate wants to exclude another entirely, and it isn’t the pro-nuclear one.

    Conscience? Right back at you, AR - unjustified fears fuelled by anti-nuclear activism have been, by orders of magnitude, the greatest cause of deaths from both Chernobyl and Fukushima, and have set effective climate action back by decades. I’d be hitting the Stilnox pretty hard if I were you.

  • 6
    CML
    Posted Saturday, 7 June 2014 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    Bravo! to George and David. Many thanks for high-lighting the health implications of fossil fuel use. It is high time the MSM got off its collective backside and started publishing these data that you have presented.
    But no - we will probably have to wait until more people die in some kind of catastrophe before anyone takes any notice!!

    Also, there is a problem with the economic argument. Of course, once the cost of health care is added to all the other factors causing increased expenditure in our polluted environment, there shouldn’t be an economic debate necessary.

    However, those who own/manage businesses within the fossil fuel/power production industries, couldn’t care less about sick/dead people. Their only interest is making money, and lots of it. Therefore, their workers and the communities who sustain them, are just so much fodder to the rich and powerful. Cynical? Maybe, but never-the-less true.

    Unfortunately, these pillars of society have the money and power to influence (in particular) our current federal LNP government and most of the state governments of the same colour!

    And Mark Duffett - Until you have watched and cared for someone who has died from heart and/or lung disease over months or years as a result of coal mining, or living in that environment, why don’t you STFU!! I, for one, am grateful there are doctors who care enough about our planet to work for change, and I think all we nurses should join them.

  • 7
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Saturday, 7 June 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    CML, pretty close to everything I’ve written here is about how to get off coal as quickly as possible.

  • 8
    AR
    Posted Saturday, 7 June 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Duffer, except that your ‘cure’- nukes - is the same as the genius who invented heroin as a cure for morphine addiction. It worked, kinda-sorta.

  • 9
    Andrew Dolt
    Posted Saturday, 7 June 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Duff, something is getting in the way of accurate reading on your part, as demonstrated below. If it’s not prejudice, what is it?

    1)The article itself is not about renewables vs nuclear, it doesn’t go there at all. It is about the dangers of coal. You are having a dummy spit because it doesn’t address this issue, when it is not about this issue.

    2) I never said nuclear energy wasn’t effective. I said it wasn’t cheap: it isn’t. I said it was complicated: it is.

    3) On the question of whether nuclear is dangerous: get back to me when Fukushima is under control, when people are living healthy lives in Chernobyl, when it is impossible for nuclear fuel to go missing, get stolen, or be used for weapons, and when you can show that nuclear waste can be safely stored for hundreds of thousands of years.

  • 10
    Andrew Dolt
    Posted Saturday, 7 June 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    And another thing, Duff: I would have thought the special capability and insights these doctors could bring to bear were demonstrated in the article itself.

    I’m also perfectly happy to include you in the debate. Let’s kick it off by establishing how you get your electricity supply. Do you have solar panels on your roof? A wind turbine in your backyard? Or a nuclear reactor in your backyard?

    See, that’s another big problem with nuclear: it doesn’t get us off the centralised grid. A number of dispersed electricity generators not tied to a grid are going to be much more useful in a world where basic resources are going to get ever more scarce, competition for them greater (including war) and interruptions to supply more common.

  • 11
    Dan B
    Posted Sunday, 8 June 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Meanwhile that huge airliner with 230+ people on board has still not been found. Any part of it - nothing.
    Just thought I’d remind everyone, before Obama redirects your attention - again..

  • 12
    robj
    Posted Sunday, 8 June 2014 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    No mention of mercury emissions from coal fired power plants?

  • 13
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Sunday, 8 June 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    1) Dolt, I know what the article is about. My issue was specifically with its manifest misrepresentation of both the intent and the actuality of Obama’s climate policy. You’re right that the article doesn’t mention ‘renewables vs nuclear’; it only mentions renewables - this is precisely my point.

    2) If you’re happy to concede that nuclear is effective decarbonisation, then that should be the end of the discussion right there - it belongs in the toolbox. Why quibble about cost if climate change is truly the greatest threat humanity as faced, for all the reasons including and in addition to those advanced by the good doctors? None of the available climate solutions is ‘cheap’. (I maintain nuclear remains substantially cheaper at the scale required to replace coal while satisfying the demands of a 1st world economy, but that’s beside the point I’m making here.)

    Complicated? So letting go the grid design built up over a century of hard-won experience and investment in favour of myriads of supercomputer-controlled microgenerators, microconsumers and management systems is going to be a walk in the park, is it? How is this simpler than the straightforward substitution of large high-carbon generators (coal) with low-carbon ones (nuclear) that have essentially the same generation characteristics?

    How exactly does getting off the centralised grid help with climate change per se anyway? It looks an awful lot like you see the former as an end in itself. ‘Not only must we have climate action, but we must have it THIS way’ just makes the task so much harder. Stop weighing it down with ideological baggage.

    3) Negligible radioactive material is being released from Fukushima (iaea.org/newscenter/news/2013/japan-basic-policy-full.html), and the death toll from radiation remains at zero. Sounds under control to me.
    People are in fact living healthy lives in the Chernobyl ‘exclusion zone’, watch Pandora’s Promise. Moral of the story: radiation simply doesn’t rank very high in the list of all the things in our world that can make you sick/give you cancer/kill you (ehs.columbia.edu/RadiationQ&AMC.html, bravenewclimate.com/2013/11/08/stayin-alive-gene-pool-p2/).

    Finally, yes there is a technology specifically aimed at your proliferation and long-lived waste concerns, it’s called the Integral Fast Reactor (thesciencecouncil.com/prescription-for-the-planet.html, thesciencecouncil.com/plentiful-energy.html)

  • 14
    Andrew Dolt
    Posted Monday, 9 June 2014 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    Duff, here is the link to the video and transcript of President Obama’s announcement to which the article refers. I checked and rechecked it on your behalf. Obama DID mention renewable energy, but DID NOT mention nuclear energy, in that speech. So will you please explain exactly what the “manifest misrepresentation” is by the authors?http://www.shallownation.com/2014/05/31/president-obama-weekly-address-video-transcript-may-31-2014-radio-youtube/

    Just to be sure, I also checked the White House’s explanation of the President’s plan. Again, it DOES mention renewable energy. It DOES NOT mention nuclear energy.
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/climate-change

    So why don’t you give the authors an apology and yourself a smack on the head. And you can give me an apology as well for your incidental slanders while you’re at it.

    Here’s the latest on Fukushima. Under control? Hardly. And the death toll is not zero.
    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/05/21/national/in-new-phase-fukushima-workers-begin-releasing-groundwater/#.U5SFLBabCS4

    I notice you didn’t answer my question about your electricity. You want to get away from coal-fired power as quickly as possible? I did that over a decade ago, with solar panels, because it’s easy, cheap and a walk in the park. Can’t do that with nuclear.

    Duff, the guy weighed down with ideological baggage? That’s you.

  • 15
    Andrew Dolt
    Posted Monday, 9 June 2014 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    That link again, Duff:
    http://www.shallownation.com/2014/05/31/president-obama-weekly-address-video-transcript-may-31-2014-radio-youtube/

  • 16
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    Yeah, you have to actually look beyond soundbites and infographics to find it, but it’s unambiguous that the direction away from coal that the Obama administration wants to take the US is an all-of-the-above strategy:

    While the President’s strategy embraces natural gas as a transition fuel and includes steps to ensure natural gas development is done responsibly, the plan also supports and is making progress on renewables, nuclear, and other zero-carbon energy sources through research and development, and invests in energy efficiency.

    Did you read the Fukushima link I posted? It was data from those same groundwater releases you seem to think indicate ‘not under control’ - showing negligible radioisotope concentrations, much less any evidence of deaths from radiation. (Moreover, the Japan Times is not a credible source in this matter; certainly much less so than the IAEA).

    Yes I have rooftop PV, but I don’t kid myself that I’m ‘on solar’ when I microwave my porridge at 6:30 am and switch on the bathroom heater at 7. How about you? In any case, what of it? You do realise that less than a third of Australia’s electricity is consumed residentially? Serious industry and commerce needs seriously reliable energy supply.

  • 17
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    …and more specifically on the implementation of Obama’s emissions slashing as it pertains to nuclear: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/epa-points-to-nuclear-as-climate-solution

  • 18
    Andrew Dolt
    Posted Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    Duff, your mischaracterisations abound. My link contains the complete video and transcript of Obama’s speech referred to in the article. As any fair-minded person can see, there is no “manifest misrepresentation” in the article. You might as well accuse Obama of manifestly misrepresenting his own climate policy, since he too didn’t refer to nuclear energy in his speech.

    You do realise commercial buildings and industries are also powered by solar and/or wind energy, don’t you? You do know that the coal-fired power plant in the industrial town of Port Augusta can be replaced right now by a solar thermal power plant? The whole town is united in asking for this replacement.

    I could certainly microwave porridge or switch on the heater at 6.30am right now using battery-stored solar power. But I’ll wait a year or two because battery technology is improving at such a rapid rate, the batteries I buy then will be much cheaper and have much greater capacity than the batteries I buy now. Just as today’s solar cells are way cheaper and more efficient than the solar cells of a decade ago.

    Getting off the grid won’t help with climate change per se, but it will make human communities more resilient in coping with the changed world. If a power plant or the grid is knocked out by e.g. an extreme weather event, off-grid power supplies dotted all over the place aren’t affected. (And I’m agog to know what you think my ulterior motive might be. Some evil master plan to somehow achieve world domination by getting consumers off the grid?)

    I like the way you keep referring to death “by radiation” when referring to nuclear accidents. It’s like saying asbestos is safe because x people were exposed and nobody suffocated, nobody bled to death, and for 15 years since they were exposed, nobody died.

    Have all the nuclear tantrums you like, but the fact is consumers, be they households or businesses, are walking away from centralised energy providers and generating their own renewable energy, because it’s cheap, it works, and it makes perfect sense. And there will be nothing the fossil fuel or nuclear lobbies can do about it, although I wouldn’t entirely put it past them to try jailing people.

  • 19
    GRLCowan
    Posted Sunday, 15 June 2014 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks to Mark Duffett for enlightened comments.

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