OPINION: Australian Coal Saves Lives

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In the first few pages of the International Energy Association’s newly released World Energy Outlook, they make a fleeting reference to the estimated more than 6 million people who die each year because of indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Despite this tragic toll, in the rest of the 355 page report they mainly focus on carbon emissions. (No one dies from breathing carbon dioxide.)

People die when they inhale the organic matter that is released when wood, dung, straw and coal is burnt for energy.

The IEA estimates that 2 billion people around the world do not have access to clean cooking fuels.

There is an assumption that our coal exports contribute to this human tragedy but that is not the case. In fact, Australian coal exports help cut air pollution in Asia and hence save thousands of lives. People die from air pollution when poor households use rudimentary stoves to heat and cook in their home.

Australian coal is expensive, so no poor families are buying high quality Australian coal to burn in their homes. Around 3 million deaths a year occur because of this type of indoor pollution.

Around 4 million people a year die from outdoor pollution which primarily comes from coal and gas power plants or cars and trucks being used in congested cities.

But again, Australian coal does not get burnt in the old power plants that emit a lot of soot. Modern power plants use scrubbers to capture this soot (and other nasty pollutants) before it is emitted. Because the high cost and high quality of Australian coal, it does not pay for it to be used in old power plants.

You only have to visit Japan and Korea who rely heavily on Australian coal for their electricity. There is no significant problem with air pollution in these countries because they have built modern coal fired power stations that use clean, Australian coal. The air pollution that remains comes largely from cars and Australian coal can be the answer for that too. More coal fired powered electric vehicles would cut that type of pollution.

China and India, of course, do have big problems with air pollution including from old coal fired power stations.

While Australia exports some coal to these countries more than 70 per cent of their coal use comes from domestic supplies, which are often much lower quality than Australian coal.

While the IEA report spends most of its time projecting how much coal (and other fossil fuel exports) must fall by to meet net zero, there is no estimate of how much that this will exacerbate deaths from pollution. If we make it hard for people to access high quality fuels like our coal, pollution will persist longer than it has to, and people will die.

Indeed, while the IEA provides the usual doomsday predictions of heatwaves and natural disasters, it provides no estimates of how many people die from climate change. While there remains a lot of doubt about the link between climate change and natural disasters, there remains no doubt about the shocking number of fatalities that are caused by poor quality fuels.

There is a moral case to expand the export of Australia’s high quality coal because Australian coal saves lives.

Hon Matt CanavanSenator for QLD

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