Monday, August 13, 2012

Fossil energy costing Australia billions in health problems

"Coal-fired power triggered lung, heart and nervous system diseases estimated to cost Australia $2.6 billion a year, while the annual health costs of pollution from oil-fuelled vehicles were put at $3.3 billion a year. Switching from vehicle transport to cycling or walking to work would reduce obesity, which would significantly reduce risk of heart disease, breast cancer and mental illness. Reductions in consumption of meat from cattle and sheep, which were big contributors of greenhouse gas in Australia, would not only reduce pollution but also reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer. The report says: "In Australia, air pollution is estimated to kill more people every year than the road toll.""

- Mark Metherell, "Health impact of rising carbon levels said to be costing $6b a year", SMH, August 2012.
H/T Peter.

So, actually, the immediate costs of our high emissions just in Australia greatly exceed $6b a year, since the first two items alone account for that. There are plenty of other fascinating figures in the report that the SMH article skips over (and it entirely ignores one whole section of the report on the benefits for natural ecosystems):
  • Motor vehicle-related air pollution is believed to be responsible for between 900 and 4,500 cases of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and bronchitis each year in Australia, and between 900 and 2,000 early deaths.
  • Reductions in red meat consumption in Australia from the (current) average of 100g to 50g per person per day have been predicted to reduce annual emissions from livestock by 13.3 MtCO2-e (about 22 per cent) as well as cutting the incidence of colorectal cancer by 11 per cent.
  • Globally, 3.2 million deaths each year can be attributed to physical inactivity. [...] Longtitudinal studies reveal cycling for transport is associated with 30-40% lower mortality rates, and cycling and walking projects provide high value for money, with the health gains returning a benefit:cost ratio of 5:1. The likelihood of becoming obese increases by 6 per cent for each hour spent in a car each day.
Indeed, I think the SMH article missed the most politically sensitive number from the report, which is that if we simply take the public health costs of greenhouse emissions (and ignore climate costs), then the price of carbon ought to be at least $45/t CO2e, rather than the current price of $23/t CO2e. Let me repeat that: if the climate dissenters turn out to be right, and anthropogenic climate change is non-existent or not particularly injurious, it would still make sense to put a price on carbon emissions at almost double the present rate purely for the public health benefits.

And such benefits are by no means confined to Australia:
"Globally, air pollution [from coal and oil] kills 1.34 million people each year. [...] The 2012 OECD Environmental Outlook report suggests that without policy action, air pollution will become the biggest cause of environmentally-related deaths worldwide by 2050.
The report also notes that the black carbon (i.e. soot) pollution from burning biomass in poor countries kills more than two million each year "from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and pneumonia."

A somewhat similar study in the US by Harvard Medical School estimated that US public health costs of burning coal (it didn't even look at petroleum) run into the hundreds of billions annually. Total externalities for coal were estimated at between 300 and 500 billion dollars annually. If the price of coal-fired electricity included these costs (as it ought, in a well-designed economic system), coal no longer looks "cheap". It is cheap only to the moment you burn it, then it is nothing but costs.

Another report from the EU found that reducing carbon emissions 30% from 1990 levels by 2020 could save €80b annually in public health costs alone. For comparison, Australia's carbon scheme will actually see our emissions still rise between 1990 and 2020, though we use 2000 as our benchmark in order to hide this fact. And remember, all these studies are looking at countries with semi-decent pollution controls already. China and India's costs - burning much dirtier coal with little pollution control - are measured in millions of lives lost, shortened and worsened.

Two gripes with the SMH article:
  1. It is criminal that online newspapers do not provide direct links to reports on which they are reporting. Here is the report in question.
  2. The headline is misleading, not only in lowballing the true figure, but also in saying these are the costs of "rising carbon levels". The article makes clear they are the immediate health costs of burning dirty fossil hydrocarbons. The climate costs are likely to be much, much greater, but they are harder to get a handle on (either statistically or emotionally) because they are deferred and operate through highly complex causal chains.
However we slice it, the practice of burning fossil hydrocarbons has huge implications. There are all kinds of ways we can easily and quickly reduce our reliance on them, and taking such first steps is a no brainer even in the absence of climate concerns. When we acknowledge the shared understanding of 19 national science academies of OECD nations (which is contradicted by no scientific body of national or international standing in the world) that our greenhouse emissions are dangerously altering the climate then the demands of justice and prudence call us further than just the easy and obvious reductions. We should have started many decades ago, but today is better than tomorrow.


Simon said...

Byron did you catch these?

byron smith said...

No, I didn't. Thanks!

Simon said...

Oh and this one

byron smith said...

Guardian: Climate change already damaging global economy and public health:

"Climate change is already contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing the world more than $1.2 trillion, wiping 1.6% annually from global GDP, according to a new study.

"The impacts are being felt most keenly in developing countries, according to the research, where damage to agricultural production from extreme weather linked to climate change is contributing to deaths from malnutrition, poverty and their associated diseases.

"Air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels is also separately contributing to the deaths of at least 4.5m people a year, the report found."

Reuters: 100 million will die by 2030 if the world fails to address climate change.

Grist: Explaining the "100 million deaths by 2030" claim.

Byron Smith said...

SMH: Australian extreme weather costs rising rapidly, according to a new report from global reinsurance giant Munch Re.