“Clean air, clean water and food three pillars of good health, say doctors”
The federal Government’s attempt to cripple the Renewable Energy Target is of deep concern to doctors,as it disregards totally the human health implications.
Health consideration was presumably excluded from the Warburton deliberations because had it been included the government’s case for curtailing renewable energy would have been even weaker. Already there is sound evidence that the health costs of using coal make it more expensive than renewable energy. By contrast, the renewable energy sources wind and solar facilitated by the RET have no proven health costs.
The RET decision has to raise serious concern about the ability of the government to understand and use facts in its decision-making, rather than the personal prejudice displayed by some senior ministers in particular regarding wind energy installations. It is likely that both the climate change ambivalence as well as loyalty to the fossil fuel industries colours decisions on the RET and energy policy in general. However, the unease of the community is greatest in relation to the view of economics, which excludes the costing of externalities. It is only by ignoring all of the costs that enables the slogan “coal is cheap” to be pedalled This should trouble any government which extols its economic management
This issue is of concern to many doctors for nearly every government decision has health implications whether it is related to closing a car industry or promoting a suburban motorway instead of public transport. There is a justifiable and growing unease that the government does not understand.
In Australia more than 3000 deaths each year are attributable to outdoor air pollution in our four biggest cities. Half of these deaths are due to coal combustion. The cost to the community of illness, hospital admissions, time off work and death is considerable and would be saved by orderly replacement of coal burning by renewable energy. This is the role of a public health measure like the RET.
What are the costs that the Government is ignoring? From the US Environmental Protection Agency’s review of America’s Clean Air Act we know that that every dollar spent on cleaner air can produce $30 in health benefits. From the work of economist William Nordhaus in the US we know that the economic costs of health and environmental harms arising from coal fired power stations outweigh the value provided by as much as 5.6 times
In Australia a 2009 study by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering Australian estimated externalised costs of fossil-fuel generated electricity in Australia to be $2.6 billion pa. For brown coal, black coal and gas these additional costs were $52, $42 and $19 per megawatt hour, respectively.
Behind these economic costs is the human suffering from a range of diseases including heart disease, stroke, asthma, emphysema and lung cancer, with the young and old particularly vulnerable. Unlike tobacco addiction these do not require complicated measures to cure addiction to prevent heart and lung disease; they require government policy to give its citizens clean air.
The RET has even wider health advantages. It brings clean, sustainable jobs to rural and regional Australia, a sense of self-sufficiency essential to assuage the insecurities of this vital section of the community
It seems likely that the government has got itself into this untenable position over the RET because it equates it as a measure to reduce green house emissions. It should note that all the points made above are unrelated to greenhouse emissions; they relate to the particles and toxic gases spewed from power stations.
For those who accept climate science the case does of course become even more compelling – we must do all we can to reduce coal combustion for its worldwide heath implications which WHO defines as the defining health issue of this century.
The government’s adoption of a Warburton position is the signal that it does not understand the ongoing need for all nations to embrace the transition to renewable energy which, if disregarded, will have adverse implications not only for climate but for our future economy.
The government, in its forthcoming negotiations on the RET, might pause and reflect on all Australians who will suffer harm from its ideological quest; clean air stands with clean water and food as the three pillars of good health
Dr David Shearman, is emeritus professor of medicine at the Uniersity of Adelaide and honorary secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia www.dea.org.au
This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 27 October 2014, and is reproduced on our website with their kind permission
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