Coal addiction: Can Australia kick the habit?

October 17, 2008

Our addiction to coal is not only killing our planet but also those who mine it, burn it and live around it, a Perth climate activist has claimed.

Toni Warden, co-convenor of Stop the Eastern Terminal Sub-Station, researcher with the Hills Climate Action Group and member of Sustainable Energy Now, told a "Solutions to Climate Change" forum that coal was as dirty and dangerous as uranium.

Speaking at the Socialist Alliance forum on October 11, Warden said that burning coal is one of the biggest contributors to global warming and, as such, is endangering the entire planet.

Through its 70% reliance on coal to generate electricity, Western Australia enjoys the dubious reputation of being amongst the biggest polluters of greenhouse gases per capita in the world.

Both coalmining and burning coal for energy are major industries in Australia, and neither show sign of cutting back on production in order to minimise atmospheric carbon.

"In fact", Warden said, "Western Power's educational World of Energy website quotes that for Western Australia alone, total estimates of coal reserves are 'estimated at 6,840 Megatonnes (Mt) and is expected to last for around 1,070 years at the current level of production and use'.

"So much for the government's encouragement for everyone to reduce their carbon emissions. One coal-fired power station's CO2 emissions negates all those emissions reduction initiatives in just one week of production", Warden pointed out.

Also, in order for coalmining companies to make big profits, huge areas of land are scarred and polluted each year, causing extensive and irreparable degradation to natural ecosystems. Low dose accumulation of the toxic metals from coal causes compounded damage to human beings, animals and plants.

"Coal does not just contain one harmful material but many", Warden said.

"Mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, nickel, vanadium, copper, and radioactive elements are all found in coal. Western Australia uses black coal, which is considered to be low in sulphur content, yet it contains significant amounts of sulphur and sulphides whose bio-toxicity increases when exposed to air or water, and can form acid rain."

When coal is burned for power generation, the harmful elements become air pollutants that can cause and aggravate respiratory diseases, neurological disorders, developmental and learning disabilities, visual and hearing impairment, and can lead to lung tissue damage and premature death.

"This pollution also affects our vegetation, trees, crops and water quality", Warden said.

Power plants have the ability to control at least 90% of their mercury emissions but currently there is no legislation in Western Australia to enforce this. The coal industry has argued that it would make the cost of power production too expensive.

"Actually, coal-burning power plants are very expensive", Warden said. "Coal is an energy commodity whose continued market dominance in Western Australia is starting to see our electricity prices grow exponentially. The price of mining coal will increase with fuel rises and the world economic crisis.

"Costs of keeping the large electrical infrastructure will also increase.

"As well", Warden said, "coal-fired plants are extremely inefficient in the way they are operated, based on designs from more than 100 years ago. For instance, coal-fired power stations burn at 100% capacity, 24 hours a day. So at night, when we are sleeping and the electricity demand is considerably less, the power stations are producing unusable energy."

Coal-fired energy requires huge centralised power stations far from populations, which results in high transmission costs and inefficiencies, and threatens our energy security.

"Should there be a reason that we can no longer source coal for our power plants, the majority of our energy would be interrupted, leaving the state stranded, and arguably, the Australian economy adversely affected", Warden warned.

Far from phasing out coal, the Western Australian government has commissioned two more coal-fired power stations, thus holding back the renewables sector in the electricity market. "This will exacerbate global warming and leave us ill-prepared for the inevitable changes the climate emergency will force upon us", Warden predicted.

"Our whole electricity mix of energy resources has to be changed drastically. We need to replace coal with the renewable energies that are ready to be used right now, such as wave, geo-thermal, wind and solar power.

"A right-sized distributed energy mix will improve energy efficiency and reduce the costs to our environment and to consumers", Warden said.

"But we need to get active. If we do nothing, we can expect the continued dominance of this cancer on our society for some time to come", Warden concluded. She urged forum participants to join Hills Climate Action.

[Contact Hills Climate Action through or call (08) 9299 6453.]

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