The 2017 Climate Report only adds to the frustration which Doctors for the Environment Australia and other health groups feel when confronting energy, transport and climate policy in Australia, policies which ignore the health burden to Australians and the hidden costs of climate change and dirty air.
At the end of a year in which we have witnessed endless arguments about who is to blame for electricity prices, a detailed report from the Chief Scientist, whose key recommendation of a Clean Energy Target was ignored, a stunt with a lump of coal in the National Parliament, and an announcement from AGL that the Liddell coal-fired power station will close in 2022, all we are left with is the National Energy Guarantee.
The only “guarantee” is that coal remains dominant and renewable energy investment is slowed. Climate and health policy, like emissions, have been ignored, despite the nexus between energy, transport, climate and health. Yet health experts have long recognised that reducing coal and transport emissions, especially from diesel fuel, results in improved health for exposed communities.
Christmas is a time for thinking about children. Early this month UNICEF released a report, Danger in the Air, how air pollution can affect brain development in children, causing reduced IQ, memory, and grade scores. Children are particularly susceptible to these and other effects such as asthma and reduced lung development. Coal and transport are the chief sources of these pollutants, many of which are common to both.
There is a tendency to dismiss these reports as of no relevance to the “lucky country”. However, 3,000 deaths per year in Australia can be linked to air pollution, at a cost of between $11 billion and $24 billion. Air quality standards are long overdue for revision and for some toxins have not been revised for nearly 20 years. In early December the University of Melbourne’s lung health experts and Environmental Justice Australia met to discuss the growing problem of air pollution in Australia. They questioned why a state and commonwealth government’s review will take three years to arrive at new standards when they were able to do so themselves in a day.
Similarly, the Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions appears to have stalled while transport emissions continue to rise, causing not only climate harm, but contributing to the health harms which are proven.
A mere two pages of the 2017 Climate Report are devoted to transport and the detail is sketchy. Some financing for businesses and fleet owners under the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and some carbon credits under the Emissions Reductions Fund are welcome but hardly constitute a policy. One bright spot is the $10 billion National Rail Program which is long overdue.
The tragedy of this blindness is that good climate policy is wedded to good health policy in cleaner air. This is recognised by all major health authorities and has nothing to do with “ideology”. Burning more fossil fuels will release more CO2 into the atmosphere (410 ppm and rising) which is causing climate change and will continue to do so well into the future, even if we stop now.
On the other hand reducing harmful sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, ground level ozone, aromatic hydrocarbons and particulates will bring about more immediate health benefits, particularly for our children. California and a growing number of other US states have rejected Trump’s pro fossil fuel stance. Australia should do the same.
Nothing stands in the way of clean energy and clean air except government policy and vested interest.
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