The Doctus Project: Tobacco, coal, and Adani’s Carmichael mine

Imagine there was a giant new tobacco factory being planned for regional Queensland. And that both the state and federal governments were backing its development, and offering public money to support it. There would likely be considerable outcry from medical and health organisations and much public debate about supporting this unethical industry.

This is happening right now in regional Queensland – just substitute Adani’s Carmichael coal mine for the tobacco factory.

Adani’s proposed Carmichael project would be Australia’s biggest coal mine and a global public health threat because of its contribution to world greenhouse emissions.

Recently in Townsville, locals shared their experiences and concerns about the Adani coal mine. Their concerns ranged from the predicted impact on groundwater, agriculture, the Great Barrier Reef and climate change.

Despite these concerns and the fact that this project has yet to secure funding, Adani recently announced that they plan to begin work in October this year.

A $900 million Australian taxpayer-funded loan for rail infrastructure is crucial to the mine getting off the ground. The potential use of public money to finance a project with such immense health and environmental costs deserves transparent and honest debate.

A drain on precious water resources

A central concern of prominent Queensland grazier, Bruce Currie, is the impact the mine would have on water supply in this drought-prone area of Queensland. And he’s got a pretty solid case. Many rely on the Great Artesian Basin for their very survival, and Adani has been given a licence to use unlimited amounts of this ground water – in addition to 12,500 million litres of water from local rivers per year.

Water pressure from Artesian bores is already a concern – current water pressure from bores is only half what it was 100 years ago, as a result of water use across the basin. The Adani mine – which would use the equivalent of 13 Olympic swimming pools of water every day – risks the drying up of bores and natural springs upon which the agriculture and ecosystems in this region depends.

Contribution to climate change

A deep concern about the Adani coal mine is not just its own impact on carbon emissions, but its role in opening up the Galilee Basin to additional coal mines. On its own, the emissions from burning the coal from Adani’s mine are considerable, equivalent to the emissions from countries the size of Sri Lanka or Austria. If all the coal in the vast Galilee basin was burned, though, it would more than double Australia’s annual emissions.

If we’re serious about climate change as a public health issue, we simply cannot in good conscience dig up this coal. More than 90% of Australia’s coal reserves need to stay in the ground to limit climate change to a ‘safe’ level.

Climate change is already a health issue nationally and worldwide, with increasing extreme weather events, heatwaves and changing rainfall patterns. The United States and Caribbean have just been ravaged by two historically severe hurricanes – Irma and Maria – with devastating consequences. Back home, bushfires are becoming more common, heatwaves more severe, and two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef have already been lost to bleaching, a direct effect of warming oceans.

We’re currently halfway to the ‘maximum safe limit’ of 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures, and already seeing these effects.

Black lung disease and air pollution

The direct health cost of coal – black lung disease (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, as it is known in medical circles) – is currently being felt by at least 23 coal miners in Queensland, with potentially thousands affected but remaining undiagnosed.

The failure of industry and government to protect these workers is documented in a recent Queensland Senate inquiry, exposing “harrowing evidence from workers and their families” and “catastrophic failings” in the system to protect miners from this disease.

In India, where Adani’s coal is destined to be burned, coal-fired power stations contribute to air pollution, which kills an estimated 1.1 million people every year. Air pollution impacts health throughout the life cycle, contributing to heart disease, lung disease, asthma and lung cancer.

The world is moving beyond fossil fuels

The mine is being proposed in the context of a world rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. India’s own energy minister has stated that he plans to cease thermal coal imports this decade, which leaves the future of Adani’s coal at risk of becoming a stranded asset.

Australia’s four main banks and other international banks have ruled out funding this risky investment.

The case against coal is clear, and ignoring it risks our very survival on an inhabitable planet – this is, quite evidently, far too high a price to pay for 1,464 jobs (the amount testified by Adani’s economist in court).

Australia, with its enviable sun and wind resources, has the potential to be a renewable energy superpower, with associated huge job opportunities. With a target of 50% renewables by 2030, there would be an estimated 28,000 additional jobs Australia-wide, including 6,000 jobs in Queensland alone. Compare that to the 1,464 Adani would bring.

What can the health sector do?

Coal is the new tobacco. And just like tobacco, health professionals have a key role in shifting public opinion and changing policy to protect health. In the case of coal and climate change, time is ticking.

There are many health professionals already speaking out against this mine, however a united front is required to shift public and political opinion towards prioritising health. Together we can create a future that protects our communities and future generations from the health effects of climate change. It’s time to act, for the health of us all.


Dr Sujata Allan is a Sydney GP and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia

First published in the Doctus Project on 21 September 2017

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