The untold story: health benefits of the carbon price

By Fiona Armstrong

(An edited version ran in the Canberra Times and Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday 26th Jun 12, as “Carbon Price’s Health Bonanza”)

The birth of Australia’s carbon price legislation is predictably being heralded by the chorus of criticism that has accompanied its gestation, despite the early distribution of handouts as the government attempts to buy its way through the noise.

While the #cashforyou compensation might muffle some of the clamour, it certainly can’t be countered by the mysterious silence about what the carbon price is for and what it will do, other than line the pockets of Australians.

The decision by the government to label the carbon price package the ‘clean energy future’ represents a pragmatic reading of the political mood, as well as the need for a positive ‘frame’ with which to ‘sell’ it, but there remains an ongoing failure to describe the point of the legislation – or what it can deliver.

There is however an untold story of good news associated with this, the beginnings of our national emissions reduction strategy, which has been completely overlooked in government communications and in other commentary – and that is the improvements in public health and economic savings that accompany emissions reductions.

While there may be environmental and climate benefits implied by the term ‘clean energy future’, the words ‘climate change’ have been conspicuously absent from the conversation about the carbon price, and that’s a shame, given that it is (presumably) the motivation for taking action in the first place.

For while there will indeed be climate benefits, they are far off in the future and will only be realised by a considerable ramping up of emissions reductions, far beyond a 5% by 2020 target or a $23/tonne carbon price.

The health benefits however are available much sooner than that. Health economists have evaluated the health benefits associated with emissions reductions in Europe, China, India and the UK, and the findings suggest improvements for health are available immediately – and can amount to billions of dollars saved annually from avoided ill health and productivity gains. For example, in 2010 it was predicted that cleaner air from an emissions reduction target of 30% by 2020 in the European Union would deliver savings worth €80 billion a year due to reductions in the incidence of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases (associated with air pollution from burning fossil fuels).

So, contrary to the popular myth in Australia, emissions reductions can actually offer a win-win-win –  that is, improvements in population health as well as economic savings as well as a reduction in climate risk.

Much of the conversation to date about emissions reductions however has focused on ‘cutting carbon pollution’, for which the benefits appear to many people to be mainly available for future generations, and therefore possibly less urgent, not realising that there are substantial and important benefits available immediately for public health – that will also deliver considerable economic savings.

The European and US modeling on the health benefits of emissions reductions (from which we must extrapolate potential benefits for Australia since this work has not been done here, yet) suggests that the savings from avoided ill health can substantially offset the costs associated with cutting emissions – and may even exceed them. For example, studies of the adverse impacts on the community’s health from the coal industry in the United States suggests that industry’s impost on human health outweighs the national economic benefits of the sector – in other words, coal is costing the US more than it earns due to the illnesses and deaths caused by the harmful mix of particulates, chemicals and carcinogens produced by the processes of coal mining, transportation and combustion. Who would choose to continue to support such an industry?

The costs to Australia from the coal industry are clear enough in the communities that live and work in proximity to coal mines and coal fired power stations. Respiratory diseases, intellectual development delays in children, and lung cancer are all implicated. Again, we lack the thorough studies to understand the full extent of the harm being caused to Australia and Australians from this industry; a human impost the NSW, Victorian, Qld and WA governments appear all to willing ignore in the face of lucrative royalties paid to those governments from industry.

It is clear however that moving to cleaner, safer, healthier energy sources would bring significant gains for public health in Australia. This applies to the transport sector as well, where the air pollution created by the use of fossil fuels is also causing considerable harm. A (too) little known fact is that air pollution kills more people in Australia each year than the road toll – the combustion of petrol and diesel causing harmful pollutants such ground level ozone and carbon monoxide as well as tiny particulates which not only cause respiratory disease but also enter the blood stream, causing heart attacks and stroke.

But where are our national campaigns for cleaner air?

The good news from all of this is of course that the direction in which we are tentatively moving, with our tiny step towards a low carbon future, is that it’s not just about the climate – it’s about us and how we can protect the environment and ourselves by adopting low carbon lifestyles, energy options and transport choices. This is an opportunity to achieve better health for ourselves, for the community, by taking advantage of our existing natural advantages of the sun and the wind, and supporting technologies and industries that are clearly in the national interest, not only in the interests of mining shareholders.

Fiona Armstrong is the founder and convenor of the national coalition of health care stakeholders, the Climate and Health Alliance