Cut Coal out of Energy Diet and Save Billions in Health Costs

How can actions taken now cut carbon pollution and also deliver billions of dollars in health benefits? Australia’s Climate Institute and the Climate and Health Alliance have the answers. They point out that coal-fired power in Australia burdens the community with a human health cost estimated at $2.6 billion annually. A start has been made with the generation of energy by solar panels and the wide adoption has been largely credited to the former Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Read more

Australia’s fossil fuel sickness

By Tristan Edis for Climate Spectator (14 August 2012):

The Climate Institute and the Climate and Health Alliance have released a briefing paper today outlining how actions that can cut carbon pollution could also deliver billions of dollars in health benefits. Some rather stark examples used to demonstrate their case are:

– Coal-fired power in Australia burdens the community with a human health cost – from lung, heart, and nervous system diseases – estimated at $2.6 billion annually.

– The annual health cost of pollution from cars, trucks and other modes of fossil-fuelled transport is estimated at around $3.3 billion. In Australia, air pollution is estimated to kill more people every year than the road toll.

The paper takes the logical step of pointing out that a range of measures such as increasing the amount of renewable energy in our electricity supply system, or increasing patronage of public transport would act to reduce the health-damaging pollution from these sources while also reducing greenhouse gases.

Report author Fiona Armstrong points out that: “One recent global study, for instance, found that for every tonne of carbon dioxide they avoid countries could save an average of $46 in health costs –around twice Australia’s starting price for carbon.”

This report is part of a challenge Fiona Armstrong has written about previously in Climate Spectator to get a broader range of people concerned about climate change. According to Armstrong, the framing of climate change as an environmental ‘save the trees’ issue can make those with a conservative political outlook inclined to reject its validity, irrespective of the evidence. The hope is that these people might be more supportive of actions to reduce carbon pollution if they believed this would assist human health.

I have often wondered why governments of European nations as a general rule (Poland being a notable exception) have been far more willing to take action to address climate change than Australia and North America. And I suspect that it partly relates to European people’s greater historical exposure to the harmful health effects of pollution more generally, as well as greater resource scarcity.

In Australia our vast spaces have meant that pollution has been less concentrated in areas of high population. In particular, our coal-fired power stations tend to be over a hundred kilometres from the major capital cities which house the vast majority of our population. This has led to an out of sight, out of mind syndrome.

As an illustration, a NSW government survey from several years ago found that most people in NSW thought the predominant source of their electricity was from hydro. It has also helped that our coal has less harmful impurities than that traditionally used in Europe.

While Australian cities do encounter problems with air pollution from car traffic, the traffic and population densities are not as a severe as Europe, making the problem more manageable.

Australia has never come up against the kind of environmental and natural resource constraints that have confronted Europe. Indeed a large proportion of company market value on the Australian Stock Exchange is built upon increasing the rate of resource consumption.  This has made it especially difficult to get people from across the political spectrum to accept the idea that it might be in our own interests to constrain resource consumption.

The one area where Australia has confronted severe scarcity has been in water. Not unsurprisingly the extended drought of 2002 to 2007 was pivotal in making climate change a policy priority. Unfortunately the public’s lack of a richer appreciation for why reducing carbon emissions was a good idea, meant that when the drought broke concern about climate change dissipated.

This report from Climate Institute and Climate and Health Alliance should help in building a richer appreciation for why reducing carbon emissions is about improving human welfare, rather than being solely about saving the trees or water scarcity.



How Turnbull transformed solar PV

By Tristan Edis for Climate Spectator (20 August 2012):

The REC Agents Association released data over the weekend showing that Australia installed more residential rooftop solar systems over 2011 than any other country in the world. There are now 1.5 million solar PV and solar hot water systems installed.

Thinking back to 2002 to 2007 during my time at the Australian government’s Greenhouse Office and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, I would have never expected such a feat to be achieved. And it can probably be largely attributed to Malcolm Turnbull.

During this time, installations of solar PV were like a tiny pimple on a huge back of coal-fired power. Annual installation rates were measured in kilowatts not hundreds of megawatts. The industry was pretty much dominated by a single player in BP Solar, with everyone else playing around the edges.

The businesses engaged in installation were enthusiasts who did it partly out of love for the technology, rather than large professional organisations focussed on profit and driving down costs. It was a cosy cottage industry pure and simple. Both the power industry and the government bureaucracy largely thought that it would never amount to anything substantial, either in terms of the electricity market or greenhouse gas abatement.

Then something changed. The precise date was May 8, 2007 when the Howard government handed down its final budget. I remember being at the national conference for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (now the Clean Energy Council), standing around a television with a group of the major players in the Australian solar PV industry.  When Peter Costello announced the rebate for solar PV would be doubled from $4000 to $8000 per kilowatt, I don’t think there was a single person in the room who wasn’t shocked.

But we probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. Malcolm Turnbull was the environment minister at the time and has never done anything by halves. He’s a man who already had fame and fortune and was now in a desperate hurry to leave a positive imprint on the Australian policy landscape.

All in the solar sector knew the doubling of the rebate would lead to a boom in sales, but it didn’t lead to a boom in profits. Instead it became a catalyst for a swarm of new entrants that shook-up a cosy cottage industry. These businesses were determined to convert solar into a mass-market product with large volumes but low margins. These new entrants strove to squeeze out costs to get the price of systems to a price point that would open-up an untapped, large group of customers that weren’t wealthy and weren’t off the grid.

Australia used to pay significantly more than other countries for residential solar PV systems, but now our systems are noticeably cheaper than the US and Japan, and not too far off Germany.  We are now a leader in small-scale residential systems.

But this rebate, and the multiplier for renewable energy certificates that replaced it, were heavily biased towards small residential systems of less than 2 kilowatts. This has warped the industry into one almost entirely focussed on the residential sector, when in fact the best place for solar is on commercial business rooftops. It’s a bit like some incredibly distorted body builder that has huge biceps but chicken-legs.

For the industry to be truly useful in the battle to contain Australia’s emissions, it will need to beef-up its under-sized muscles.


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