A report (pdf) by CoalSwarm and the Sierra Club has been generating plenty of excitement recently. The key point is that for every new coal-fired power station completed, plans for two such plants are shelved or cancelled. In India, the failure-to-complete rate is 6:1. China is oversupplied with coal-fired generation capacity, and it’s coal generators are only operating at 54% of capacity. In both 2013 and 2014 China commissioned more renewable energy capacity than coal capacity.

The figures indicate a decoupling of coal use and economic growth. For example in China, which consumes half of global coal production, coal consumption fell 1.6% in 2014 while economic growth went up 7.3%. All in all, it appears our love affair with coal is on the wane.

Global carbon emissions for 2014 were the same as for 2013, the first time such a plateau has been observed when the global economy was growing. But before we get too excited it needs to be recognised that emitting as much carbon dioxide in 2014 as in 2013 is not a good thing. It’s just slightly less bad than following the historical trend of carbon emissions being an inevitable consequence of economic growth.

But while this ‘levelling’ in emissions is what made the headlines, there is another figure in the report that deserves greater attention: pollution from coal is responsible for around 800,000 premature deaths per year.

What price suffering?

I recently posted an article reporting on research by Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He calculated that, when impacts on climate and human health are taken into account, coal-derived electricity costs three times as much as solar power. Amongst the more considered comments this sparked on Facebook was this: “What a contrived made up pile of tosh.  Coal is cheaper, more efficient and more reliable, end of story. Making up phoney health costs to show otherwise is just plain lying and deceit.”

Death from air pollution is not instantaneous. It is preceded by ill health and suffering, and for each person who dies many others will be afflicted by chronic lung and heart diseases.  The personal and financial costs borne by the sick, their families and health systems are anything but phoney. But as with most environmental costs, the coal companies and the power generators get off scot-free.

Somebody else’s problem?

Australia didn’t make it onto the list of coal-caused deaths; the vast majority occur in China, with India coming in a distant second. Both these countries are major coal producers, and the creators of their own shocking statistics. However Australia is the world’s second biggest exporter of coal and many local and overseas companies are keen to lift our exports way above current levels. The government is on board, with the Prime Minister declaring coal “good for humanity”.

If coal’s dreadful toll was imposed just upon the residents of Canberra they would all be dead in less than six months. Would Mr. Abbott then look upon coal in such a positive light?

Image: V.T. Polywoda via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)