Health implications of Coalition's energy policy

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons.

The National Energy Guarantee (NEG) and Turnbull Government's current energy policy have significant adverse health implications, causing deaths and illness, right now, in Australia and globally.

These are totally ignored by the Energy Security Board (ESB), Coalition Government and fossil fuel interests.

The webinar on the ESB’s Consultation Paper on the NEG showed that difficulties understanding the document and doubts it will work to reduce emissions and power costs were shared by energy generators, retailers, financiers, lobby groups and consumers.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has followed the NEG closely since its announcement, writing to energy and health ministers, treasurers, premiers and first ministers, urging consideration of the NEG’s effect on global and Australian health.

DEA represents hundreds of medical experts across Australia, supported by a Nobel laureate, recipients of the Australian of the Year Award and many other distinguished health professionals. DEA aims to bring health risks from climate change and pollution to public attention. DEA also made a submission to the ESB about its Consultation Paper.

Initial views that the NEG was a rushed idea, developed by the ESB in indecent haste between 3 and 13 October 2017 and not a policy, was confirmed by experts at the webinar.

The ESB reports to COAG Energy Council, which had no input into the NEG.

Despite the Turnbull Government’s endorsement of markets, electricity market participants were almost unanimous that the NEG was exceedingly complex, lacked transparency, would entrench the existing large retailers, inhibit new entrants, reduce competition, reduce liquidity and increase prices — and it would not reduce emissions.

Some noted that limiting the energy sector’s reduction to 26% of 2005 emissions by 2030, means that transport, manufacturing and agriculture will have to accept greater emission reductions to meet Australia’s Paris targets, which will be both difficult and more costly.

The NEG proposes no reduction in CO2 emissions (rising each year under the Abbott and Turnbull governments) between 2020 and 2030, thus failing Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.

DEA is concerned about the health implications of the NEG. The NEG favours coal and gas – with their health risks for humanity and the planet – and inhibits investment in renewable energy. The NEG predicts less than 28-36% renewable energy in the National Electricity Market (NEM) by 2030 — less than business as usual (35%), Finkel’s Clean Energy Target (42%) and Federal Labor’s policy (50%). In 2030, coal and gas will be 64-72% under the NEG, 58% under Finkel and 39% under Labor.

The health implications of coal are truly horrifying, contributing to about half the estimated 3,000 early deaths annually in Australia from air pollution. From mining through to combustion, coal emits toxic pollutants of particulate matter (PM) and oxides of sulphur and nitrogen — contributing to asthma attacks, dementia, cancer, heart attacks, stroke, lung and vascular disease. Low birth weight babies with seriously impaired outcomes are a probable result of living downwind from coal-fired power stations.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that particulate pollution from all uses of coal could cause over one million premature deaths annually. The more damaging fine PM further contributes to over four million deaths annually worldwide and creates an enormous burden of disease that costs economies dearly in lost productivity and health costs.

The Lancet reports that 24 people die for every terawatt hour (TWh) of coal combusted. The International Energy Agency estimates that more than 7,500 TWh of electricity was generated by burning coal in 2009, causing over 200,000 deaths globally.

The health costs of pollution in Sydney alone are estimated to be $8.4 billion annually — much from coal combustion.

Burning coal and other fossil fuels, gas, oil, diesel and petrol, creates greenhouse gases leading to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and climate change which are already causing deaths from heat-stroke, bushfires, drowning, injuries, infection, suicide and the intolerable stress of failing agriculture.

Gas is not much less significant as a cause of AGW when the poorly measured fugitive emissions of methane, 86 times worse than CO2 as a forcer of climate change, are included. Fracking also has health impacts, damages water tables, soil and the rural environment, contributing to farmer distress and suicide.

These causes of death may seem remote but they are not so to emergency physicians, hospital clinicians, rural practitioners and first-responders.

The NEG requires the States’ agreement to legislate this policy. DEA is encouraged by some States moving towards a responsible renewable future. South Australia now has more than 50% renewable energy, Victoria's target is 40% by 2025, Queensland, 50% by 2030 and the ACT has contracts to be 100% renewable by 2020.

DEA has supported bipartisanship on climate policy but it cannot support this thoroughly bad, seemingly cynical, pro-fossil fuel proposal. DEA encourages the States to work together to develop effective and uniform national State-based policies, as is occurring now in cities and States in the USA since Trump threatened to leave the Paris Agreement.

Particularly egregious are suggestions to delay or “back end” emissions reductions to the last years before 2030 — the measurement deadline for Australia’s Paris commitment. Delay will cause more deaths and sickness and formalise inherent injustice in passing this responsibility to our children and grandchildren.

DEA’s submission to the ESB can be read here.

Dr Christopher Juttner is a clinical haematologist and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA).

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