Coal and csg rush clashes with health and climate obligations

February 21st, 2013 at 5:10

This article was first published as ‘Energy policy like ‘profiting from slavery’ on ABC Environment Online on 19th February 2013.

Anyone holding onto the quaint notion that our elected representative govern in the interests of the community will see how false that is when they look at energy policy in Australia, writes Fiona Armstrong.

Australia is currently in the middle of a coal rush. Coupled with the exploration of coal seam gas expanding at a rapid rate across Queensland and New South Wales, this looks (on paper) to be one of the country’s biggest and most rapid industry expansions in our short history.

Australia is currently the world’s largest exporter of metallurgical coal and ranks sixth in exports of thermal coal. In 2012, we sold around $60 billion worth of coal, mostly to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Looking to the future, Australia’s national energy policy, the Energy White Paper, anticipates strong demand from these nations for Australian coal and prioritises coal production as a core element of energy for the coming decades.

Around 30 new coal mines and coal mine expansions are planned for New South Wales and Queensland, and if they proceed would more than double Australia’s current coal exports of more than 300 million tonnes per annum.

Much of the current expansion of coal is predicated on rising demand from China, and India; a stable global economic environment; and industry denial about climate science.

These assumptions have shaky foundations and investors should heed the clear warning from risk experts of the imminent destruction of value of high-carbon investments and that climate change will continue to deliver systemic shocks to regional and global economies.

China is reportedly looking to cap energy production from coal and indicated that coal consumption will peak during the next five year plan. These announcements suggest the Australian coal industry’s expectation of an ongoing boom is inflated by wishful thinking.

Closer to home, research from the Australia Institute suggests the expansion of coal exports is adversely affecting the national economy – its growth occurs at the expense of other industries. It suggests cutting coal production would lead to a net economic benefit, with growth made possible in other sectors such as manufacturing, tourism and education.

And regardless of where it’s burnt, Australia’s coal represents a huge contribution to global emissions. Proposed coal exports would lead to an additional 700 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, and would place Australia (just the Galilee Basin in Qld alone) at a ranking of seventh largest contributor in the world to global CO2 emissions arising from the burning of fossil fuels. For a nation that likes to pretend we contribute only 1.5 per cent to global emissions, that’s quite a jump in our contribution.

What does it mean for our climate commitments? The International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2012 (pdf) was quite clear about the prospects for limiting damages and reversing climate change associated with global warming from burning fossil fuels. Quite simply, if the world wishes to limit warming to less than two degrees (a level that is considered the absolute maximum in order to prevent escalating and irreversible warming trends), we cannot even exploit existing fossil fuel reserves, much less liberate even more.

The expansion of coal and coal seam gas (given the high emissions signature of CSG from emissions during extraction) would completely negate many times over any gains that are made from emissions reductions achieved through Australia’s carbon price.

There is also serious harm to human health associated with the coal rush. The burning of coal for electricity is associated with the compromised health of thousands of people living in proximity to these plants. The mining and transportation of coal also carries serious health risks from coal dust and toxic pollutants released during extraction and rail transport to ports.

But who is looking out for the community in terms of protecting health and wellbeing? For those who still hold the quaint notion that elected parliamentary representatives might be interested in achieving the best outcomes for the community, it’s disappointing news.

State governments appear willing to approve projects despite serious community opposition because of the revenue they provide in mining royalties. Climate risk is severely underestimated in the Australian Government’s Energy White Paper, and Premiers Newman and O’Farrell also appear oblivious to the climate implications of their respective coal booms.

Even the health professionals have been missing in action, with communities such as those in Maules Creek in NSW and adjacent to a fourth coal export terminal in Newcastle forced to undertake or organise their own health impact assessments from proposed coal projects. Supported by volunteer groups such as Doctors for the Environment, community groups are researching health impacts, setting up air quality monitoring, and collecting baseline health data.

Last week however signaled a shift in the involvement of the health and medical community in Australia. Health leaders met at a national Roundtable in Canberra last week and resolved to engage more directly with energy policy in this country, to see that the local and global implications of the coal rush are highlighted in terms of the impact on health.

Speaking to the Roundtable of around 40 health care leaders, Professor Colin Butler from the School of Public Health at Canberra University said: “Australia’s reliance on the export of coal is no more justifiable than profiting from slavery or the supply of cocaine. Of course, energy is vital, including in Asia, but a clever country would develop energy technologies that can wean civilisation from its highly dangerous reliance on 19th century technology.”

A statement (pdf) from the Roundtable participants said: “The risks to human health from energy and resources policy are not being well accounted for in current policy decisions. Significant policy reform is needed to ensure health and wellbeing is not compromised by policy decisions in other sectors. Recognising the importance of the social and environmental determinants of health is an important part of that.”

Clearly, relying on the weight of evidence in relation to climate and human health is insufficient to lead to effective, safe, equitable policy. Many of us who participated in the meeting in Canberra last week believe civil society leaders such as health professionals and health sector executives have a responsibility to help develop policy in every sector that protects and promotes health. This involves getting a better understanding of health risks associated with energy and climate policy – and making sure the community is aware of these risks as they prepare to vote for a new national government. Because right now, energy policy is possibly our greatest threat to health on the planet.

Fiona Armstrong is the Convenor of the Climate and Health Alliance, which together with Public Health Association of Australia,Climate Change Adaptation Research Network – Human HealthAustralian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, and National Rural Health Alliance co-hosted the Health Implications of Energy Policy Roundtable and Workshop.

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