Energy White Paper's unhealthy omission | RenewEconomy

Energy White Paper’s unhealthy omission

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The federal government’s long-awaited Energy White Paper has trumpeted the benefits of fossil fuels, while ignoring the costs – the toll on human health.

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Several commentators have already noted significant shortcomings in the Energy White Paper, particularly its focus on continuing expansion of fossil fuel industries whilst gesturing at action to address greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

What has not been widely discussed is the Energy White Paper’s failure to recognise, let alone assess, the human health costs of energy generation and related industries.

There are only oblique references to the “safe production, supply and consumption of energy”, and a mere aspiration for social, environmental and economic considerations to be equally considered.

This White Paper could and should have introduced a balanced and inclusive discussion on the real costs of energy, but the opportunity was avoided.

Indeed, instead of acknowledging the externalised costs of energy, the White Paper supports a fossil fuel oriented future, most notably around coal and gas (set to increase by 8% and 19% pa respectively till 2017).

Ironically, one of the arguments given is to support the economic and social development of the region. There may be some truth in this, but it only tells half, the story, or less.

This is a theme throughout the Paper, where the benefits of fossil fuels are highlighted and the costs ignored.

In terms of human health, air pollution is the largest single cost of fossil fuel derived energy, at least in the short to medium term. But, and despite a detailed discussion of this in the submission to the Draft Energy White Paper from Doctors for the Environment Australia, and previous comment in RenewEconomy, it does not feature at all.

Coal, through mining and combustion, is responsible for a heavy toll in damage to human health. A 2011 US analysis finds that the real cost of the coal-fired electricity is more than doubled once these hidden costs are accounted for.

So it would seem quite an oversight for these energy related costs not to appear in a supposedly comprehensive plan for our energy future.

The Energy White Paper notes that urban air quality has improved as a result of improving fuel standards, and this is true for sulphur dioxide and lead, as a result of their removal from liquid fuels. It is also rather misleading, as it neglects the role of fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) and ozone, which mediate the majority of health effects.

Increased diesel use, urban growth and congestion, and an expansion of coal mining will increase these harmful emissions, in addition rising air temperatures, particularly in urban settings, are projected to amplify their damage.

On air quality, the Energy White Paper defers to current NEPM standards, but these standards are failing to prevent the current heavy burden of illness and mortality. In NSW for example, air pollution costs around $4.7 billion in health costs, and causes up to 1400 premature deaths annually.

The intent and direction of the White Paper would therefore seem to be a recipe for ill health and its associated costs for our society.

The potential health impacts from unconventional gas development are relegated to mere community concerns. This despite Public Health physicians warning of the dangers from chemical contamination of water and air pollution as well as mental health impacts through social effects. (Chief Medical Officer of Health’s Recommendations Concerning Shale Gas Development in New Brunswick)

Health consequences from this industry may not be well understood or quantified as yet, but preliminary work using animals as sentinels for health impacts has documented very concerning findings, which are likely to extend to human populations.

There is a failure at both the state and federal level to acknowledge far reaching safety concerns of this industry, and this is reflected in a troubling response in which GISERA, a collaboration between CSIRO and the Gas industry, is designated to assess the socioeconomic impacts on communities. This process should clearly involve independent public health expertise and not gas industry funding and representation.

Benefits to air quality from energy efficiency (or “energy productivity”) in transport and heating/cooling are raised, but curiously the same co-benefits that would be gained from renewable energy are not. This is doubly disappointing as the health benefits that could be reaped from decarbonising our transport and electricity systems would likely justify a transition to renewable energy all by themselves. But no attempt has been made to account for these benefits whatsoever.

The implications for disruption of supply and energy security resulting from climate change are raised repeatedly and justify infrastructure investment. In marked contrast the impacts on health, directly and via delivery of health services, are not. Climate change is likely to have highly significant and cumulative health, and consequently economic, effects from extreme weather events and drought, crop failures, changing patterns of disease and the secondary mental health impacts.

As we noted in our submission, meaningful discussion on energy choices must be informed by all of the costs and benefits and to this health is central. Like the draft paper the final paper retains its 20th century thinking in imposing huge health and economic cost on the community

Dr George Crisp is a practicing GP and committee member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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