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Jun 6, 2014

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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19 comments

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19 thoughts on “Obama coughs up the solution to coal pollution

  1. Mark Duffett

    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

    At worst the industry is a huge economic burden.

    The link is broken.

  3. AR

    Duffer – have you no conscience whatsoever?

  4. Andrew Dolt

    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

    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

    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

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

  8. AR

    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

    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

    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.