Environment Analysis

Coal-fired air pollution: The invisible killer

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Air pollution from coal-burning is killing hundreds of Australia every year (Image via Greenpeace)

In refusing to introduce acceptable air pollution standards, Australia’s politicians are essentially saying our lives and health do not matter, writes David Ritter.

I WOULD LIKE TO introduce you to Jim, a retired accountant who lives in Sydney's western suburbs. Jim doesn’t come across as your typical agitator, but he’s decided to speak out and bear witness because of the needless suffering experienced by his wife Liz.

Global warming and fossil fuel pollution are phenomena on a vast scale. And systemic problems require structural solutions. Yet, in grappling with the enormity of great global problems, we must never lose sight of the individual people who are at the pointy end — enduring the repercussions of the political venality and corporate greed that is holding back progress. 

The true consequences of global warming, environmental destruction and pollution, are brought home in a different kind of way when they become immanent in the flesh and blood of an individual person’s suffering. Global warming and fossil fuel pollution are hurting and killing people with names and faces; hopes and loves; families and communities.

Let’s take the example of air pollution in Australia. Back in September, Greenpeace released the first-ever national study of the health consequences of air pollution from Australia’s 22 ageing coal-burning power stations. The air pollution from coal-burning is entering our lungs, our brains and even striking at babies in the womb — and it is killing hundreds of Australians every year.

Coal-burning pollution in Australia occurs at levels that are not permissible in the EU, the USA or China. There is no number of preventable deaths from coal-burning pollution that is okay. All suffering and each pointless fatality from coal-burning pollution are abhorrent. Every one of those people who is needlessly suffering from air pollution from coal-burning power stations has a life and a story. 

Jim and Liz are from Marsden Park in Sydney’s western suburbs. Named after Samual Marsden – once the senior Church of England chaplain in NSW and infamous as "the flogging parson" – in many ways Marsden Park is a typical Australian suburb, with a couple of schools and some new commercial developments, rubbing shoulders with the hurly-burly of residential life. Jim and Liz have lived around the same area for decades — it is their home. 

In talking with Greenpeace, Jim wanted to bear witness to the suffering of Liz, his wife of many decades, who suffers from a chronic lung condition.

Jim describes how the toxic pollution from the coal-burning stations of the Hunter Valley are spread on the wind and come to shroud Western Sydney. The testimony of Jim is validated by the expert modelling set out in the Greenpeace report. Across Australia, the toxic particles from coal-burning power stations spread hundreds of kilometres, bringing illness and death to suburban homes within our major cities.

Every person should have the right to live in safety, but the invisible hand of coal pollution reaches in to do violence to people's health and lives, exposing hundreds of thousands of Australians to dangerous toxins.

Liz now has only 60 per cent lung capacity. Jim has seen his wife’s suffering – on and off life support and living life behind a mask – long before bushfires and COVID-19 put masks on everyone.

In refusing to introduce air pollution standards consistent with international best practice, Australia’s politicians are essentially saying that the lives and health of people like Jim and Liz do not matter.

It is now more than a decade since Professor James Hansen said'The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death'. Hansen was referring to the people that will die from severe climate damage driven by the coal industry — but the additional preventable death and suffering caused by air pollution, just adds another layer of needless tragedy.

While Jim and Liz and numerous other Australians endure the consequences, there are other individuals out there whose decisions are the source of their suffering. Individual politicians and corporate bosses of coal-burning power stations are those who ultimately bear the responsibility for the pain of those who are sick or dying from the pollution.

There is nothing to stop Australia’s politicians from committing to accepted international air pollution standards and taking the initiative to shift all of our electricity needs to clean energy as soon as possible. This change is long overdue, for cleaner skies, a safer climate and our future flourishing as a nation — and to prevent the kind of suffering that is being inflicted on people like Liz and Jim.

David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western Australia. You can follow David Ritter on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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