Coal-Fired Power and Climate Change: a Black Combination 1

Monday, April 13th, 2015
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2014 was the hottest year on record, there are no longer any climate denialists with credibility and the scientific community has debunked all their arguments.

There is also no doubt that the long-term temperature of the planet is rising inexorably due to carbon dioxide and other warming gases as sea temperatures rise.

The physical effects of human-induced climate change are becoming more obvious every day with the increasing frequency of extreme storms, floods, cyclones, tornadoes and hurricanes, bush fires, heatwaves, droughts, hail and snowfall events and so on. One of climate change’s major causal factors, the burning of coal, is starting to show on the medical profession’s radars.

Of the doctors surveyed recently by the American Thoracic Society, 77 per cent said they have seen an increase in chronic diseases related to air pollution such as asthma, while 58 per cent said they’d seen increased allergic reactions from plants or mould and 65 per cent said they thought climate change was relevant to direct patient care. Furthermore, 44 per cent said they thought climate change was already affecting the health of their patients a “great deal” or a “moderate amount.”

A strong majority of respondents also said that heat, vector-borne infections, air pollution and allergies would likely affect patients in far greater numbers in the next 10 to 20 years. Those surveyed also responded that physicians should be educating their patients and policy makers about climate-related health effects.

These effects get more pronounced when migration of migration of mosquito borne diseases such as Dengue fever and Ross River fever and other vector borne diseases towards more temperate zones is taken into account. Even the spread of Ebola to West Africa and the emergence of West Nile virus can be laid at the feet of climate change according to zoologists Daniel Brooks and Eric Hoberg.

Combining urban heat island effects of increasing urbanisation, there are even higher heat stroke risks from heatwaves, which also increase fire risks and also exacerbate fire related emergencies.

The thing about burning coal that has been lost in the arguments about climate carbon dioxide levels are the other toxic and carcinogenic pollutants that are emitted by power stations when coal is burnt. According to the US EPA, coal fired power station emissions contain 84 of the 187 hazardous air pollutants identified by them as posing a threat to human health and the environment.

The worst is dioxin, then mercury (70 per cent of mercury in the environment is from coal), then lead, arsenic, formaldehyde, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, other heavy metals like  antimony trioxide, cadmium, chromium, cancer-causing polyaromatic hydrocarbons, hydrochloric acid, asthma-causing micro particulates, and even uranium and several of its radioactive sisters.

Hazardous air pollutants emitted to the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants can cause a wide range of adverse health effects including damage to eyes, skin, and breathing passages; negative effects on the kidneys, lungs, and nervous system; the potential to cause cancer; impairment of neurological function and ability to learn; and pulmonary and cardiovascular disease.

One event that combines heat wave effects with the direct dirty effects of coal burning was highlighted in a study by professor Adrian Barnett. The study looked at the health effects of the recent cola mine fire in Morewell, Victoria. Barnett found that found there is an 89 per cent probability that the death rates in Morewell during and after the 2014 fire were well above average, with between 11 and 14 more deaths when comparing rates during the same months over the years 2009 to 2014. This is a concentrated version of the long term effects of coal burning for electrical energy because many of these substances are emitted unfiltered into the atmosphere as they were during the fire.

More on the health effects of coal in Australia can be found in the in the joint statement by the Climate Council and the Climate and Health Alliance. The recommendations of this study included the need for:

  • National standards for consistent air, water and soil quality monitoring at and around every coal mine and power station in Australia conducted by an independent body with no relationship to the coal industry.
  • Adequate funding allocated for research to evaluate the health, social and environmental impacts of coal in coal mining communities.

Coal’s human health risks must be properly considered and accounted for in all energy and resources policy and investment decisions.

We also encourage the investment in education and training opportunities to support coal mining communities to transition away from fossil fuel industries toward new industries.

Even this doesn’t really go far enough, however. A recent report from ACF found Australia has five of the ‘dirtiest’ energy providers in the world: Energy Australia, Macquarie Generation, AGL Energy, Stanwell Energy and Origin Energy. The Hazelwood Power Station in Victoria jointly owned by GDF SUEZ Australian Energy and Mitsui & Co is officially the worst emitter in the OECD, yet is continuing to operate.

Despite the current highly irresponsible policies of the Federal Government (even China has declared it is closing coal-fired power stations around Beijing and many others around Shanghai and other cities) as a community, we need to be focussing more attention on replacing coal fired power stations with renewable energy sources.

This means saving the current renewable energy target (RET) that the Abbott Government is trying to scrap, supporting wind, photovoltaics (PVs) and solar thermal power and exploring more energy storage potential like the recent announcement by development groups Lend Lease and LandCorp, who announced they will pioneer a major community-level battery storage pilot that could change the way residential communities source energy, including not being connected to the grid.

The pilot project is  at Alkimos Beach, a sustainable community development in suburban north Perth. It will install 1.1 megawatt/hours of lithium ion battery storage to service more than 100 homes with rooftop solar panels that will reduce electricity costs by approximately 50 per cent and emissions by even more. But you don’t need battery power to have PV make a difference, it is still inexpensive and effective at a domestic and even most commercial project levels.

We also need to focus on divesting ourselves and our investments from organisations that invest in coal and other fossil fuels, whether that be superannuation funds, banks or share portfolios. It is a truism that the movement toward global change is the sum total of the actions of every individual on the planet.

It’s not hyperbole to say the future of Australia and the planet is, in effect up to you. How are you going to protect your family’s future? What are you going to do?

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  1. Nigel Howard

    Not just speak out, but divest pensions, bank account, personal investments; protest; vote and ask awkward questions of boards, CEO's and politicians about the exposure of the commercial enterprises or public institutions that they lead.

    AND health effects are a teeny/tiny component in the whole array of disastrous consequences that climate change will have on the next few generations ability to survive on the planet. There just isn't anything that has ever been more important to humankind than this.