Australian doctors mount coal warning as G20 kicks off

Australia’s coal industry is costing $8.3 billion a year in medical costs, as lung and heart disease rise

Anglesea coal mine in Australia (Pic: Takver/Flickr)

Anglesea coal mine in Australia (Pic: Takver/Flickr)

By Ed King

Seven leading Australian health organisations say the country’s fast-growing coal industry is draining the country of AU$ 8.3 billion a year in medical costs.

They claim communities near open-cast mining operations and coal power plants are suffering from higher rates of lung disease and heart conditions.

In a statement released on the day the 2014 G20 meeting opens in Brisbane, they say coal is causing “disastrous health impacts across Australia.”

Michael Moore, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, one of the statement’s backers, said the government had to start phasing out coal exploration and consumption.

“As health professionals it is our duty to highlight these health risks for Australians and suggest better alternatives,” he said.

An attached policy paper says airborne toxins from coal mining include arsenic, sulphuric and nitric acids, boron, fluorides and mercury.

The statement was the latest in a wave of protests across the country ahead of the G20 gathering against the government’s reluctance to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

On Thursday more than 400 activists stuck their heads in the sand at Bondi Beach to highlight what they say is Prime minister Tony Abbott’s stance on global warming.

And in a direct address to leaders heading to Brisbane, the Elders group, which includes former US president Jimmy Carter and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, called for a “credible and predictable” carbon price to boost development of clean energy sources.

G20 focus

Boasting huge reserves, Australia is the world’s second largest exporter of coal, which is among the most carbon polluting forms of energy and linked to over 30% of emissions.

Abbott is a high-profile supporter of coal mining operations in the country, recently saying it was “good for humanity and good for prosperity.”

The prime minister, who scrapped the country’s carbon tax earlier this year, had tried to block G20 leaders discussing fossil fuel use and climate change at the summit, but changed his mind under US pressure and agreed to hold some talks.

The G20 meeting comes days after the US and China, one of Australia’s biggest coal export markets, agreed an historic deal to curb emissions over the next 15 years.

Speaking to reporters, Abbott said the news would not affect his own climate policies, which are targeting a 5% cut in emissions on 2005 levels by 2020.

“For Australia, I’m focusing not on what might happen in 16 years’ time, I’m focusing on what we’re doing now and we’re not talking, we’re acting,” he said.

“We are actually cutting our emissions and as a result of the Direct Action policy, which passed through our parliament in the last couple of weeks, I am absolutely confident that we will deliver on our target.”

But that confidence was challenged by John Connor from the Climate Institute think-tank, who said plans to pay polluters from an Emissions Reduction Fund  were “ludicrous.”

“Even using numbers generous to the government, with the ERF as the primary pollution policy, taxpayers would pay $9 to 30 billion a year just to match the US 2025 reduction target.”

“Adjusting for baseline years, the US 2025 target of 26–28 per cent reduction from 2005 is equivalent to Australia cutting emissions by about 30 per cent below 2000 levels.

“Making the taxpayers pay rather than polluters for that sort of reduction would require billions and billions of dollars from a budget we are repeatedly told is under stress.”

G20 leaders could also discuss efforts to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels, which amount to US$ 88 billion for exploration alone.

Leaders agreed to slow backing for oil, gas and coal companies at meetings in 2009 and 2013, but action has been limited, according to the Overseas Development Institute.

It said that in 2012 $775 billion of national and multilateral funding was directed to support fossil fuel production, compared to $101 for renewables in 2013.

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