AGL CEO Andy Vesy (screen shot via skynews.com.au).

AGL's Andy Vesey is filling the role abdicated by the Turnbull Government and the ACCC by recognising the disastrous effects of coal on human health and acting accordingly, writes Dr David Shearman.

‘‘Somebody has to be on the bleeding edge, we [AGL] are going to be the biggest emitter [of carbon dioxide] — that means we are going to need to be responsible, and take action.” ~ Andrew Vesey

When AGL CEO Andrew Vesey made the above statement, he was recognising the social licence increasingly necessary for industry — and was filling a role abdicated by the Federal Government.

He will be thanked for his leadership by many in the medical profession, for health should be paramount in this debate.

By contrast, the confident assertions on the Liddell Power Station by the ACCC Chairman Rod Sims remind me of the surgeon having completed a brilliant operation to save the sight of an elderly patient — he removes his mask, smiles and acknowledges the admiration of his team when a junior nurse puts up her hand and says rather apologetically, “But Sir, the patient has died”.

The continuation of Liddell as advocated by the ACCC will result in an estimated 80 premature deaths and hundreds of cases of cardio-respiratory disease from air pollution during the five years to closure. These harms could be reduced if air quality standards recommended by the World Health Organisation were adopted, but in Australia this reform is glacial.

Why accept more deaths and illness by extending Liddell’s life?

The health costs from pollution for the Sydney area are reported to be up to $8 billion per annum and Liddell contributes to this; it also has prodigious greenhouse emissions acknowledged by Mr Vesey.

The stated role of the ACCC is that it

' ... will take action where this improves consumer welfare, protects competition or stops conduct that is anti-competitive or harmful to consumers, and promotes the proper functioning of Australian markets.' 

Yes, “harmful to consumers” — consumers have to breathe.

There are economists on the ACCC Board who would have been expected to review the full life-cycle costs of coal before Mr Sims made his statement. Did they ignore or were they unaware of the work of eminent Yale economist William Nordhaus? Nordhaus demonstrated, using full cost accounting of all externalities, that coal now has no value to the community — work confirmed by other groups of economists.

Indeed coal is the most expensive energy modality apart from nuclear energy. It requires exceedingly good discipline by the government to do a "John Cleese" and not “mention the war” – the war being the word “health” – for to do so would undermine the ideology that coal is "good for humanity".

In making its deliberations, it is important for the ACCC to use its economic skills to calculate, using accepted formulae, the cost of lives and illness. This cost is contributed by the taxpayer for health services and this "subsidy" allows the ACCC to factor in a spuriously low cost for electricity from coal.  

Yes, competition is good and we can accept losers in business. Let us make sure the casualties are confined to business and not collateral damage as in military terms!

As doctors, we support the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of human health in all policies. The ACCC could lift its relevance by adding a health commissioner so mistakes are avoided.

The medical profession welcomes the mandatory regular refresher courses to ensure patient safety and absorb advances in medicine. Hopefully, the economists on ACCC have regular updates? If so, the work of Nordhaus and his team on coal is essential reading. Oh, and they might just become courageous and read Thomas Piketty to see how economic theory fits into the present state of the world.

Meanwhile, I propose to send to Mr Vesey a list of fellow companies he might educate on social licence. For many companies, commitment to future environment and health is confined to a green-wash statement on their website. Vesey needs to be recognised for acting on real needs.

Dr David Shearman AM is Honorary Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Adelaide

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