Every day, coal is killing us

That’s the headline for a piece I just wrote for Independent Australia, looking at a new report from Greenpeace about the harm done by air pollution from coal-fired power, in addition to the climate-destroying effects of CO2 emissions. The report estimates 800 deaths per year, and is, from what I can see, consistent with other studies.

Final para

As a possible recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic comes into sight, it’s time to place human health above the desire to maintain the economic status quo. Australia can and should get off coal by 2030, without harming workers employed in the industry. In doing so, we will be saving both lives and money.

8 thoughts on “Every day, coal is killing us

  1. And don’t forget the complications of coal, bush-fires and covid-19. The CDC writes;

    “The COVID-19 pandemic is overlapping with the occurrence of wildfires in the United States.
    Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of air pollutants that are harmful to human health.
    Exposure to air pollutants in wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, likely including COVID-19.
    Recent scientific publications (Conticini et al., 2020 & Travaglio et al., 2020) suggest that air pollutant exposure worsens COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes.”

    In addition, we can get what is now called “Disaster Overload” (overlapping disasters) more frequently.


    Some months ago I posted my concerns on this blog about Australia’s potential for bush-fires, smoke and COVID-19 this coming summer. The “lightning sieges” (very active dry thunderstorms) are another element of the overlapping disasters, probably also linked to climate change. A further effect is of course “fire thunderstorms”, “fire tornadoes” and pyrocumulus, the latter previously being mainly from volcanic eruptions but now arising more frequently from catastrophic bush-fires.

    The tundra is burning in Russia now. Yes, tundra fires, some of which burn down into exposed, dried organic matter (peat moss). Greenland’s ice is definitely retreating and retreating glaciers and melting tundra are now producing discoveries of anciently frozen viruses and bacteria new to modern science. It’s anyone’s guess where all this ends.

  2. Another way of putting this is that the price of maintaining one coal mining job for 30 years includes one dead fellow-Australian (37,800/800).

    Australia exports three-quarters of its coal. The number of induced deaths in Asian importing countries will thus be at least 2,400 a year, and each coal mining job in fact kills somebody at least every 12 years. The true total will be much worse, as the coal is burnt in much more densely populated coastal cities with far inferior health care to Australia’s. This adjustment swamps that for coking coal, which I have not bothered with.

    This is not a case of weighing Australian lives against those of foreigners, as in some trolley thought experiment. The two sets of deaths are both avoidable and both lie on the moral scales on the same side. The Recording Angel will not be sympathetic to Scottie’s plea that he was only responsible for Australians.

  3. Bring it on.

    In the news today: Whitehaven, (the big coal miner) profit wipeout sends its shares reeling.

    In other NSW government news, Mr Barilaro has now been tasked with commissioning more research around uranium mining and will report back to cabinet before any policy decisions are made. That will keep him quiet for a couple of hours.

  4. I like your tradeoff calculation James Wimberley. Puts it very vividly.
    I don’t thin your article is strengthened John by your inclusion of 400,000 coal air pollution deaths in China, as most of these deaths are from burning coal indoors for heating etc, and almost all of that coal is Chinese coal, and China is (finally) rapidly reducing coal burning in houses. So our coal has nothing to do with almost all of those deaths. But our exported coal is responsible for some deaths – as James calculates at least 2,400 deaths – and this is a very strong argument against the export of thermal coal. It is I think a stronger argument than the climate change damage caused by the coal, as the climate change damage can be mitigated, whereas you cannot avoid at least some deaths from burning coal in power stations.

  5. Every day, diesel is killing us.
    A 27 Feb 2019 post headlined “Nearly 50% of transport pollution deaths linked to diesel: study” begins with:
    “Some 385,000 people worldwide died prematurely in 2015 from air pollution caused by vehicle exhaust emissions, a US study found Wednesday, which singled out diesel engines as the main culprit.”
    See: https://phys.org/news/2019-02-pollution-deaths-linked-diesel.html

    Here are a few fundamentals that petroleum geologist Art Berman outlined on Apr 28, that I think needs to be highlighted:
    * “Most people, policy makers and economists are energy blind and cannot, therefore, fully grasp the gravity or the consequences of what is happening.”

    * “Energy is the economy and oil is the most important and productive portion of energy.”

    * “The world’s natural resource extraction, shipping and distribution system relies on diesel.”

    * “Diesel cannot be produced without first producing gasoline. The U.S. has had a gasoline surplus since late 2014 and the current surplus is the highest in 5 years…”

    * “The manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars depend on diesel all along the supply chain from extraction to distribution of finished products.”
    See: https://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/The-Death-Of-US-Oil.html

    I’d suggest there are already cheaper, rapidly deployable energy alternatives to replace coal (and fossil gas in many cases). I think replacing petroleum oil with affordable, zero/low-carbon emissions alternatives will be much more difficult, and we don’t have much time to do it in.
    See: https://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/gas-is-not-a-transition-fuel-to-a-safe-climate-that-ship-has-sailed-20200826-p55pec.html

  6. Coal (powerplants) are such comic book villians nowadays.There is just no rhime and reason to them, no matter how you turn it. Barely a financial edge over alternatives in a pre externality calucaltion, not even with all the sunk costs. The nationalist energy independence angle is also pretty weak since that usually entails subsidicing local mining up to a point where getting solar panels and wind instead would be much cheaper. In contrast to co2, those other externalties are local enough that collective action issues should not be an issue. The realpolitik case against gas is also pretty weak anway. And still we keep burning and burning arround the globe. Most “moderates” tend to tell me how i should stop getting worked up about the stupidity because there are plans to end coal over the next decade or so. But we could pretty much stop right now. It would not even be an effort. It would safe so many lives and hardly cost anything.

  7. Bad but not surprising news: a new study by Münzel and Lelieveld in the Europa en Heart Journal has nearly doubled the estimate of global premature deaths from ambient air pollution, from the WHO’s 4.5 million to 8.8 million a year. It’s now worse than smoking. Greenpeace’s 800 a year for Australia from coal is probably an underestimate. https://academic.oup.com/eurheartj/article/41/8/904/5741648

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