Press Release - August 1, 2020

Australians pay a deadly $2.4 billion health bill for coal-fired power

Coal-fired power stations’ failure to install life-saving pollution controls costs Australians around $2.4 billion in health costs annually, warn actuaries, economists and lawyers.  

In a new report released today, a team of volunteer actuaries modelled the economic cost of the health impacts of air pollution from coal-fired power, finding that the health bill last year alone amounted to $2.4 billion on conservative estimates, or more than two-thirds of federal government spending on the COVID healthcare package. 

The actuaries’ analysis, prepared for Environmental Justice Australia, follows last week’s release of peer-reviewed research, finding that poor regulation of toxic pollution from Australia’s coal-fired power stations is causing approximately 800 premature deaths, 14,500 asthma attacks and 850 babies to be born with low birthweight. Supporting other studies, the report finds 2.1 million Australians are exposed to toxic pollutants from coal-fired power stations. 

Coal-fired power stations are among Australia’s biggest sources of air pollution and our ambient air pollution exceeds the World Health Organization’s recommended thresholds. Our regulatory standards lag significantly behind most other countries, including China, the United States and the European Union.  

Coal–fired power station emissions can cause or worsen heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, low birthweight babies, and Type 2 diabetes.  

Bronya Lipski, Lawyer for Environmental Justice Australia, said: 

“Deadly air pollution generated by Australia’s 22 ageing coal-burning power stations can no longer be ignored and our governments must urgently move to address the serious flaws in our regulatory system that have fuelled this public health crisis. 

“The actuaries’ report, based on conservative modelling, quantifies the extent to which big polluters get off scot-free for polluting far more than other countries allow, while Australians pay the cost with their health and their lives. 

“We have a public health crisis generated by lack of pollution control on coal-fired power stations. No Australian state has any active strategy to reduce air pollution with policies and programs to ensure clean air. Australia’s coal-fired power stations are not even fitted with many of the basic pollution controls required in most other countries that can cut toxic pollutants by more than 85 percent.  

“Instead, power stations in Australia are licenced to emit pollutant concentrations that dramatically exceed limits set by comparable countries. This amounts to our governments giving these coal-fired power stations a licence to harm our communities. 

“State governments must urgently crack down on air pollution and implement clean air strategies with measures to reduce pollution from coal-fired power stations to as close to zero as possible, set strong stack emission limits in line with international standards and require operators to install continuous stack monitoring and best practice pollution controls.” 

Professor John Quiggin, School of Economics, University of Queensland, said: 

“The actuaries report confirms that Australians, rather than big polluters, are paying a hidden health cost. 

“The economic damage caused by coal far outweighs any benefits — which have, in any case, largely disappeared. 

“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.” 

Tim Buckley, Director of Finance Studies, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said: 

“Well done to the actuaries for independently calculating this public subsidy of our coal power generation fleet. It is embarrassing that of all major economies in the world, Australia has the most polluting coal power fleet.  

“Even India now has regulations in place mandating either the accelerated closure or retrofitting to install pollution controls on all existing coal fired power plants by 2022.  

“Surely Australia can mandate basic pollution thresholds as a pre-requisite for the ongoing operation of these costly legacy assets. 

“Beyond the massive diesel fuel rebates, the corporate tax avoidance and unfunded coal mine rehabilitation liabilities that are growing every year that provide the increasingly necessary crutch to hold up the increasingly stranded Australian thermal coal mining sector, the largest cost to Australia’s economy of our excessive reliance on outdated coal fired power is the massive public health cost of air, particulate and water pollution from coal power plants. Whenever our politicians parrot the fact free mantra that coal is cheap, they ignore all of these till-now uncosted externalities. 

“Australia needs an accelerated coal plant phase out plan over the coming decade, but alongside this should be an immediate legal requirement that basic pollution controls be installed in any coal plant that seeks to continue to operate beyond 2025.” 

Voices of the Valley president Wendy Farmer (Latrobe Valley) said: 

“Why is the Australian government sacrificing the health of our communities over costs to implement pollution controls? What price do we put on health? 

“Knowing the health impacts of burning coal, governments can no longer turn their backs on this issue. Our state and federal MPs have been sitting on their hands for far too long. 

“If governments are going to take the health of communities around power stations seriously they must require power stations to have the best pollution reduction equipment installed.” 

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