Australia's fossil fuel sickness

A new paper shows how actions to reduce carbon emissions could save billions in health costs. This will help to build a richer appreciation amongst the Australian public of the potential benefits from constraining fossil fuel use, something which Europeans appear to be more accutely aware of.

The Climate Institute and the Climate and Health Alliance have released a briefing paper today outlining how actions that can cut carbon pollution could also deliver billions of dollars in health benefits. Some rather stark examples used to demonstrate their case are:

-- Coal-fired power in Australia burdens the community with a human health cost – from lung, heart, and nervous system diseases – estimated at $2.6 billion annually.

-- The annual health cost of pollution from cars, trucks and other modes of fossil-fuelled transport is estimated at around $3.3 billion. In Australia, air pollution is estimated to kill more people every year than the road toll.

The paper takes the logical step of pointing out that a range of measures such as increasing the amount of renewable energy in our electricity supply system, or increasing patronage of public transport would act to reduce the health-damaging pollution from these sources while also reducing greenhouse gases.

Report author Fiona Armstrong points out that: “One recent global study, for instance, found that for every tonne of carbon dioxide they avoid countries could save an average of $46 in health costs –around twice Australia’s starting price for carbon.”

This report is part of a challenge Fiona Armstrong has written about previously in Climate Spectator to get a broader range of people concerned about climate change. According to Armstrong, the framing of climate change as an environmental ‘save the trees’ issue can make those with a conservative political outlook inclined to reject its validity, irrespective of the evidence. The hope is that these people might be more supportive of actions to reduce carbon pollution if they believed this would assist human health.

I have often wondered why governments of European nations as a general rule (Poland being a notable exception) have been far more willing to take action to address climate change than Australia and North America. And I suspect that it partly relates to European people’s greater historical exposure to the harmful health effects of pollution more generally, as well as greater resource scarcity.

In Australia our vast spaces have meant that pollution has been less concentrated in areas of high population. In particular, our coal-fired power stations tend to be over a hundred kilometres from the major capital cities which house the vast majority of our population. This has led to an out of sight, out of mind syndrome.

As an illustration, a NSW government survey from several years ago found that most people in NSW thought the predominant source of their electricity was from hydro. It has also helped that our coal has less harmful impurities than that traditionally used in Europe.

While Australian cities do encounter problems with air pollution from car traffic, the traffic and population densities are not as a severe as Europe, making the problem more manageable.

Australia has never come up against the kind of environmental and natural resource constraints that have confronted Europe. Indeed a large proportion of company market value on the Australian Stock Exchange is built upon increasing the rate of resource consumption.  This has made it especially difficult to get people from across the political spectrum to accept the idea that it might be in our own interests to constrain resource consumption.

The one area where Australia has confronted severe scarcity has been in water. Not unsurprisingly the extended drought of 2002 to 2007 was pivotal in making climate change a policy priority. Unfortunately the public’s lack of a richer appreciation for why reducing carbon emissions was a good idea, meant that when the drought broke, concern about climate change dissipated.  

This report from Climate Institute and Climate and Health Alliance should help in building a richer appreciation for why reducing carbon emissions is about improving human welfare, rather than being solely about saving the trees or water scarcity.