SBS Comment: From Hazelwood to Marrakech – Australia needs to move away from coal

Liz Bashford

The climate change talks in Marrakech which start this week will put a spotlight on Australia’s poor contribution to the Paris agreement to keep world global average temperatures below 2 degrees.

For all the Government’s dogged support of the coal industry which is tarnishing our international reputation, Australia’s reliance on polluting coal could be coming to an end.

Engie announced the closure of the aging Hazelwood power station in Victoria last week, in response to a market with low wholesale electricity prices, falling electricity demand, and a company commitment to deal with climate change by phasing out coal-fired power stations.

There have also been recent closures of power stations in Victoria (Morwell and Anglesea), WA (Worsley, Muja AB), SA (Playford B, Augusta), NSW (Redbank and Munmorah) and Queensland (Collinsville and Swanbank B).

Doctors for the Environment Australia has long been calling for the closure of coal fired power stations because of the damaging health impacts of their emissions. Now that closures are also being made on economic grounds, transition plans for the future are even more important. The Latrobe Valley community has been unfairly treated, being left without a firm phase-out plan for Hazelwood’s demise, despite the closure being predicted for several years.

Hazelwood, built in 1964, was one of the oldest plants still operating, and was the most polluting power plant in Australia. Emitting about 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, it also produced other air pollutants including nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxides and fine particulate emissions (PM2.5) all of which are harmful to human health. No amount of exposure is without health risks, pregnant women and children are especially vulnerable, and residents living close to power stations suffer its effects disproportionately. Any reduction in emissions will lead to immediate and long-term improvements in health of nearby residents.

The health burden from pollution from power plants cost the Australian taxpayer an estimated $2.6 billion a year, from emissions-induced respiratory disease, asthma, heart attacks and cancer. In Victoria, the month-long fire at Hazelwood’s coal mine in 2014 caused a spike in hospital admissions, and was likely to have contributed to deaths in the region.

Other countries are facing similar problems. In an attempt to tackle the country’s air pollution crisis and its health impacts, China will shut down 100 coal-fired power stations this year and more closures are predicted. China is also closing 4300 coal mines over the next three years, with a definite shift away from coal. The US has confirmed a 10 per cent year-on-year decline in coal consumption in 2015.

There is a structural change occurring in energy markets throughout the world, but Australia is being left behind in our current approach to power generation.

In Australia, over 5000 jobs in the renewable energy industry have been lost from their peak in 2012, a 27 per cent decline. Investment in large scale renewables in Australia has fallen significantly since its peak in 2012, though small scale renewable energy such as domestic solar power has performed better.

This year globally, renewables exceeded all other forms of new power generation, a massive shift in energy markets led by China, India, and the US. Half a million solar panels are installed every day around the world, and two wind turbines were installed every hour in 2015, and growth is continuing exponentially. World-wide investment in renewables is about US$400 billion a year and two million new jobs were created in renewables since 2014. Energy generation from renewables is expected to exceed 7600 TWh by 2021, equivalent to the total electricity generation of the US and EU put together today.

Fuelling these changes is the overriding concern of climate change. Australia’s commitment to honor the Paris agreement, which came into legal force last week, should at least compel the federal government to put in place transition plans for those communities currently reliant on coal for their livelihoods and set aside any plans for new coal mines. The estimated $6 billion a year in subsidies to fossil fuel companies could be spent on the rehabilitation of mines, the costs of which are estimated in the billions and will be borne mainly by the taxpayer.

Climate change should no longer be an issue of political belief or ideology, there are health, financial and economic decisions to be made, requiring structural change to move away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy generation. We have the technology and we have the imperative to make it happen if we wish to lessen the impacts of unmanageable climate change.

The world-wide change to renewable energy sources is beginning to impact Australia, despite the recalcitrance of many of our leaders. Hopefully the closure of Hazelwood is part of the beginning of Australia’s phasing-out of health damaging coal-fired power stations?

Australia would certainly be a healthier place for it.

Liz Bashford is a Victorian-based anaesthetist and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

First published in SBS comment 8 November 2016

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