Australia, like the US is trying to stick to the coal agenda despite cleaner sources of energy making the fossil fuel irrelevant to our futures.
COVID is now a known airborne killer but there’s another one at large that also attacks through the air we breathe: coal.
A recent Greenpeace report found that in Australia alone, coal pollution was responsible for 800 premature deaths, 15,000 asthma symptoms in children and 850 new cases of low birthweight amongst infants. And that’s a conservative estimate.
Australia is home to 22 coal fired power stations, many of which are outdated and pollute dangerous toxins and gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.
Pollution from these plants spreads hundreds of kilometres from the source, affecting rural communities and Australia’s biggest cities alike.
“Australians all over the country are paying for electricity with their lives and health, even if they don’t use power from burning coal or live near a power station,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific Campaigner, Jonathan Moylan said.
“Now that we know the devastating toll that coal is taking on Australian lives and livelihoods, governments have no excuse not to act. We need urgent action from state environment ministers to tackle dangerous air pollution.”
Several of the world’s most dangerous sulfur dioxide emitters can be found in Victoria and New South Wales in the Yallourn, Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B plants in the Latrobe Valley and Vales Point and Eraring near Lake Macquarie.
Sulfur dioxide can cause wheezing, decreased lung function and difficulty breathing with hospitalisation risks for children, older adults and people with asthma.
Sulfur oxides are also a major component of microscopic particulate matter (PM) that is inhaled and can get into the lungs and the bloodstream as well as create a low visibility haze in the air.
Long term exposure to PM 2.5 during pregnancy has been tied to low birthweight, leaving children at a higher risk for dangerous health conditions including cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and premature death.
Air pollution can also increase susceptibility to the Sars COV 2 virus and increased severity or mortality risk for COVID 19.
A black cloud across the ocean
In the US the story is worse.
After nearly a decade of progress in the war on coal, the United States is once again pushing a “clean coal” agenda in spite of the public health consequences.
According to Greenpeace USA, coal pollution causes 36,000 deaths every year, linked to four of the five leading causes of death in the nation including respiratory diseases, strokes, heart disease and cancer.
These numbers fall on deaf ears as the Trump administration continues to roll back environmental protections on “beautiful, clean coal,” despite being warned of the health impacts coal counties would face.
In September 2018, Trump announced rollbacks on Obama era coal protections at a rally in West Virginia even as his own Environmental Protection Agency warned the decision would cause 350 to 1,500 additional premature deaths nationally.
Trump frequently touts the phrase “clean coal,” a purposely undefined term dating back to the Department of Energy’s campaign to remove impurities in coal causing acid rain.
However, many environmentalists consider it a rather oxymoronic descriptor, with coal scrubbing processes to reduce CO2 content undefined and often not much of an improvement.
The Trump administration has long touted coal mining jobs as a major part of its economic agenda, however, the health impacts of coal emissions have costs of their own.
One study found that fossil fuels cost the US $120 billion in public health with coal powered energy the biggest offender at $0.32 per unit of electricity.
Despite Trump’s insistence that he would revive the coal industry, 2019 saw the second biggest decline in coal production, behind Obama era shutdowns in 2015.
Coal fired plants continue to shut down as cleaner energy production options become more competitive even as politicians try to prop up the dying industry.
This could mean good news for the US as plant shutdowns have saved lives in the past
A UC San Diego study estimated that the US saved 26,000 lives after 330 coal fired plants were decommissioned between 2005 and 2016, the majority under the Obama administration.