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Killer coal

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that air pollution causes seven million deaths each year. Much of this, both indoor and outdoor air pollution, is due to burning coal as a fuel. Considering the WHO report, it would be a very conservative estimate that would place the number of deaths world-wide due to coal at less than several million each year.

However, in the long term, the most deaths due to coal will come from the effects of climate change; sea level rise and desertification will lead to forced migration, famine and wars; increased frequency and intensity of heat-waves, storms, bushfires and floods will kill many. For more about the consequences of climate change see information on these pages and links to external sources.

Ocean acidification, also largely caused by coal-burning, will change the ecology of the oceans and combine with the warming of the oceans caused by climate change to destroy the worlds coral reefs and damage fisheries.

Written 2017/02/02, modified 2017/06/13
Contact: email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com (David Clarke) – ©
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Waterloo Wind Farm, Mid North South Australia
This page was written in Australia, a nation that produces 5.5% of the world's coal and exports more coal than any other: 38% of the world's total coal exports are from Australia. Making the conservative assumption that only two million of the deaths are due to coal burning we can calculate that Australian coal causes 110 000 deaths per year.

The World Health Organisation report, mentioned above and summarised in The Guardian, states that air pollution is the world's single biggest environmental health risk. (Other references to the health effects from the burning of coal are given in Links, below.)

The main sources of ambient air pollution are motor vehicles and coal burning. The main sources of air pollution in homes are coal smoke and wood smoke.

In Australia in 2017 our Liberal coalition government cannot see past the profits that they believe can be made by digging up and burning or exporting millions of tonnes of this killer commodity.

In early 2017 both Prime Minister Turnbull and Deputy Prime Minister (and head of the Australian Nationals) Barnaby Joice have made statements favourable to building new coal-fired power stations in Australia. These are not needed and not wanted by most of the Australian people; both large-scale solar and wind power are expanding and there is little increase in electricity demand from the grid. The continuing installation of solar power on the roofs of Australian homes as well as the increasing number of utility-scale solar power stations is also reducing demand for new fossil fuel power.

As Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University, wrote in The Coversation,

"New coal plants wouldn't be clean, and would cost billions in taxpayer subsidies".

"Major Australian energy companies have ruled out building new coal plants. The Australian Energy Council sees them as "uninvestable". Banks and investment funds would not touch them with a barge pole. Only government subsidies could do it."
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How absurd and unethical it would be for the Australian government to heavily subsidise the building of more coal-fired power stations for this killer industry when they are not needed, not wanted and not even economically viable?

Outside Australia, people and the more progressive organisations are turning away from coal because they see its shortcomings and because they see it lacks a viable economic future. They are turning toward clean, non-polluting, renewable energy.

Coalition support for the coal industry is not new, a quote from PM Tony Abbott on 2014/05/28:

"It's particularly important that we do not demonise the coal industry and if there was one fundamental problem, above all else, with the carbon tax was that it said to our people, it said to the wider world, that a commodity which in many years is our biggest single export, somehow should be left in the ground and not sold. Well really and truly, I can think of few things more damaging to our future."
PM Abbott would like to export even more coal and death, and he will do so if the Australian people allow him to. The man, who calls himself a Christian, has not the slightest conception of morality.

Prime Ministers Turnbull and Abbott seem to be among the very few national leaders on the planet who want minimal action on climate change and ocean acidification. Tony Abbott is a man who claims to be Christian yet who seems to be motivated only by ambition and money.

US President Barack Obama recently (late May 2014) said:

"We don't have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children"

and

"As President, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that's beyond fixing."

How much CO2?

In 2012 Australia mined about 430 million tonnes of coal. This is about 14 tonnes each second. When these 14 tonnes are burned they produce about 25 tonnes of CO2 every second – which goes straight into the atmosphere!
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Air pollution from coal is the most dangerous type

Justin Worland wrote a piece in Time on 2015/12/02 under the headline "Coal Is the Most Dangerous Pollutant for Heart Disease".

The research showed that air pollution from the burning of coal for electricity generation was something like five times as damaging to our hearts as was general air pollution. The research also showed that Diesel traffic-related soot was associated with heart disease deaths but that particulate air pollution from both wind-blown soil and biomass combustion were not.

PM Malcolm Turnbull is known to have serious concerns about the burning of coal and the resulting climate change, yet he still follows the Liberal party line and promotes the dying coal industry. Will this news give him any second thoughts? I suspect that ambition will win-out over his conscience, again.

The health study report can be read at Environmental Health Perspective.

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Australia and coal

Deaths to be expected from proposed coal mines in the Galilee Basin, Queensland.
Just two mines will cause around 18 thousand deaths each year

Wikipedia gives world coal extraction as 7 865 million tonnes (MT) per year and total Australian extraction as 431MT.

As discussed above, from the WHO report, it is reasonable to accept that there are two million deaths caused by coal burning world-wide each year. If we accept that the deaths due to burning the coal exported from Australian mines cause deaths at the same rate we can do some calculations.

Several mines are proposed in the Galilee Basin in Queensland. Two of the largest:

  • Gina Rinehart's, Hancock Coal/GVK, Alpha Coal mine is expected to 'produce' 30MT/year, causing more than seven thousand deaths each year;
  • Clive Palmer's China First mine, at 40MT/yr will be responsible for over ten thousand deaths each year.
(The above production figures are from Wikipedia.)
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China's cancer rates "exploding"; ABC

When China started its great economic and industrian growth a couple decades ago it built many, many coal-burning power stations. At some point it started importing millions of tonnes of Australian coal to burn in these. Since then China has had shocking air pollution, and now enough time has passed for cancers to have developed.

"China's cancer rates exploding, more than 4 million people diagnosed in 2015, study says". Written by ABC's China Correspondent Matthew Carney, 2016/03/24.

"In some of the industrial provinces, lung cancer rates have increased a staggering four-fold" and the cause seems to be air pollution, largely due to coal burning.

"Cancer has been the leading cause of death in China since 2010, with lung cancer causing the most deaths."

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Energy poverty

The Turnbull Coalition government tells the Australian people that exporting coal to India is a wonderful thing because it lifts so many people out of "energy poverty". But the air pollution from the burning of that coal kills 1.1 million Indians each year year as reported by Think Progress.

You can't enjoy having electric lights if you are dead.

We'd be doing the Indian people a much bigger favour if we were to help them develop renewable wind and solar power to lift them out of energy poverty without the pollution from coal-burning.

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Links

A number of links are scattered through the text.

World Health Organisation reports, 'Burden of disease from Household Air Pollution for 2012', and 'Burden of disease from Ambient Air Pollution for 2012', (available on the same link), state that around 7 million people die each year from air pollution, much of this resulting from burning coal.

The World Health Organisation report mentioned above was summarised in The Guardian.

The University of British Columbia released a statement 2016/02/12 headlined "Poor air quality kills 5.5 million worldwide annually". The research was headed by Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health in Vancouver. Coal was found to be a major contributor, together with the burning of wood, dung and other biomass. This work was also published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Think Progress; India's polluted air now kills 1.1 million people per year. This referred to the State of Global Air report: below.

State of Global Air/2017: A special report on global exposure to air pollution and its disease burden.

The State of Global Air has an interactive Net site.

The prestigious health journal, The Lancet, 2017/02/11, published an opinion piece by Chris McCall, titled Australia's new coal mine plan: a "public health disaster".

A Net site called Facts and Details provides a shocking summary of the air pollution situation in China. Another site, Urban Emissions, shows that India is similarly polluted.

An article published in The Lancet in 2007 put numbers on the deaths caused by the burning of coal in Europe to generate electricity. I have used these numbers to calculated how many deaths might be avoided in Australia by replacing coal-fired power with wind energy.

Doctors for the Environment, Australia, 2010/07/19, published a Policy Paper on the Health Impact of Coal Pollution and Renewable Energy. A quote:

"The greatest co-benefit for global and national health [from replacing coal with renewables] would be a reduction in the mining of coal and in its use for power generation. Taking all externalities into account, including the health burden of coal in Australia estimated by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering to be $2.6 billion per annum, it is likely that coal is the most expensive fuel. Yet under our present accounting system it is the cheapest, and an unfair competitor for renewable energy."

Australian Conservation Foundation: Stop Adani's Carmichael Coal Mine.

Coal miners share the air the rest of us breath, they also have to accept the risk of black lung disease, coal miners' pneumoconiosis.






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Australia and coal
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Galilee Basin
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Most dangerous pollution


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