Air pollution can lead to premature deaths and problems such as heart attacks and asthma, but the economic cost of this is not being pitted against the apparent benefits to the economy of burning fossil fuels, according to Tony Capon, professor of planetary health at the University of Sydney.
He and others point to ballpark figures suggesting the energy and transport sectors alone cost Australia at least $6 billion a year in health problems.
“They’re conservative figures and we’re not taking account of this information in our public policy,” Professor Capon said.
“We consider these costs external and we don’t look at the full ledger.”
Experts like Professor Capon argue that a move towards less-polluting forms of energy and transport would deliver much-needed savings to Australia’s budget bottom line.
Burning fossil fuels produces CO2, which is bad for the climate, but it also tends to produce air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and very fine particles that can play havoc with our respiratory and cardiovascular systems, even in countries with good pollution laws.
While air pollution levels in Australia may be low when compared to countries such as China, there is evidence that even low levels can be damaging to health.
Reducing fossil fuel combustion could give immediate and additional health “co-benefits” that accompany longer-term benefits for the climate, Professor Capon said.
“The transition to producing energy using renewable methods will reduce the toxic air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels.
“If you look internationally, the World Health Organisation estimates that there are more than 7 million premature deaths from air pollution every year.
“It’s because of health concerns from air pollution that the Government of China, for example, is starting to take the need to reduce fossil fuel burning much more seriously.”
Offsetting the cost of climate policies
A recent study by atmospheric chemist Noelle Selin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues found health savings could offset the cost of China’s climate policy altogether.
While one might expect big health savings to be made from controlling air pollution in developing countries, similar findings have been reported in the United States.
“I would not be surprised if there were co-benefits in Australia, given we found them in the United States which is an industrialised country with advanced air pollution regulations,” Dr Selin, whose study found the most cost-effective climate policy was to put a price in carbon, said.
Dr Selin said health co-benefits could be an added incentive for individual countries to take action on climate.
“When you are thinking about what motivates an individual country to take action on climate, air quality benefits are seen immediately,” Dr Selin said.
“You stop burning fossil fuels and you see the impact on particulate matter immediately, whereas climate change impacts you would see further in the future and globally.”
Positive story being ‘ignored’
Policies that achieve better health and wellbeing while reducing emissions are win-win options, according to Fiona Armstrong, from the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), whose advisers include Professor Capon.
CAHA is a grouping of health professionals campaigning for a national strategy for climate and health, endorsed by Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty.
“As we’ve seen overseas, there will be new job opportunities in the transition to a green economy.”
Under the Paris Agreement on climate, which came into force in 2016, Australia is required to consider the health co-benefits of reducing fossil fuel emissions when making policy.
But Ms Armstrong said despite the health and environment ministers being approached on several occasions to consider health co-benefits, to date they were failing to take responsibility.
“At present they’re managing to ignore that,” she said.
Research by University of Melbourne PhD student Annabelle Workman found the health department was seen as a “peripheral agency” in the development of emission targets in Australia.
Her interviews with Federal Government employees directly involved in policy revealed health was considered a “second or third-order issue” and co-benefits played a “minimal role” in the development of climate change mitigation policies.
Health co-benefits considered in Europe, US
Health co-benefits have already been included in climate policies in places like Europe and the US.
The European Union is also taking account of health co-benefits in its climate change mitigation policies.
In 2011 it estimated such benefits could be worth up to 17 billion euros per year in 2030, and up to 38 billion euros in 2050.
In the US, former president Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan — now on hold under President Donald Trump — was sold on the basis that it would prevent thousands from dying prematurely, reducing health problems including asthma attacks in children, along with missed school and work days. It stated the public health and climate benefits of acting on climate would be worth as much as $US54 billion ($72.9 billion) in 2030 alone.
But despite calls to consider health impacts in climate change policy, the Australian Government stands accused of inaction.
Where’s the Australian data?
So, if the Australian Government was to take health co-benefits into account, what would the health costs and potential savings be worth?
“Coal fired power represents health costs equivalent to $2.6 billion annually in Australia,” Ms Armstrong said.
“Fossil fuel transport has been estimated to be at least $3.3 billion.”
These figures on health costs come from studies published in 2005 and 2009.
“I would anticipate they would be conservative figures,” Professor Capon said.
Evidence cited in a recent report from the University of New South Wales suggests the health costs due to Australian motor vehicle emissions doubled in the five years to 2010.
Some have criticised such findings, however. For example in 2015 the NSW Minerals Council argued research which concluded the health costs of Hunter Valley coal-fired power stations and coal mines amounted to $600 million a year was “unnecessarily alarmist”.
The electricity sector figure cited by CAHA comes from a 2009 report by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), which calculated the health damage caused by emissions from coal-fired power stations
Author of the report, now-retired ATSE fellow Tom Biegler said he was not aware of his modelling having been used in policy, or of any updated national estimates being prepared.
Dr Biegler’s study used modelling based on European findings and he said the findings should be verified by Australian studies.
A scarcity of research on policy options
Ms Armstrong said it was important to have research looking at the health co-benefits of different policy options in areas like transport and energy.
“What we don’t have is solid evidence or modelling of the economic value of the health savings of a particular policy,” she said.
“It’s up to the Australian Government to take responsibility for doing that analysis in order to inform the development of policy in line with their Paris obligations.”
Only 0.1 per cent of health research funding is currently spent on climate change and health research.
But, while extra studies might help maximise savings from co-benefits, Ms Armstrong said the Government should still take action now.
“We don’t need more numbers to reduce emissions from transport and energy sectors,” she said.
“We know there are going to be the added bonus of health co-benefits from these climate mitigation activities.”
And beyond air pollution, advocates argue the Government needed to include the co-benefits of other activities that reduce emissions and energy use.
Professor Capon said this meant investing in strategies such as active transport — walking, cycling — together with mass transit instead of building more motorways, reducing meat consumption, and designing houses that use less energy for heating and cooling.
A matter for the Commonwealth and the states
A further barrier to considering health co-benefits of climate change mitigation is that state governments play a role in regulating air quality.
While European policy makers have a process that integrates air quality and climate change policy making, Australia may need to rely on the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to get things done.
Professor Capon said that at the state level there was some interest in health co-benefits but this did not seem to have yet made it to the national level
“Perhaps this is an opportunity for COAG — for the states and Australian Government to work together in the interests of the health of Australians,” he said.
It is not clear whether health co-benefits will feature in this August’s COAG meeting about the National Energy Guarantee, which promises cheaper and more reliable electricity with fewer emissions.
The ABC approached the ministers for Health and Environment for comment.
A spokesperson for the Minister for the Environment and Energy pointed to Australia’s progress against existing emissions targets, but did not respond to the claim that the health benefits of emissions reductions are being ignored.