What is the true cost of coal?

27 November 2008

What would you say is the actual cost of coal? I can tell you that you won’t find the answer on your electricity bill. Nor will you find it on the stock exchange or commodities market. Greenpeace has just released a report called The True Cost of Coal, which looks at the many ways that coal is costing people their land, livelihood and health. You can see the true cost of coal in Colombia, where the coal industry has forced communities from their land to get hold of what is underneath. Its in Poland, where ex-miners suffer poor health and injury from substandard health and safety practices. You’ll find it in the United States, where mountain top removal involving the literal blasting of land and soil into the surrounding area, contaminating streams and water supplies for those living downstream. It’s a cost being paid by everyone suffering the impacts of climate change – of which coal is the chief culprit. Greenpeace commissioned an independent study into the assessable economic costs of coal, examining the pollutants created from mining, accidents along the coal production chain, impacts on human health and, of course, climate change. The total damage bill? $700 billion. Per year. Because they don’t appear in the visible cost of producing coal, these are referred to as “external costs”. A well-known “externality” is greenhouse pollution and the fact that the damage it causes does not get factored into the cost of polluting activities caused Sir Nicholas Stern to describe climate change as “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen”. Even though we report a massive financial burden on the planet from mining and burning coal, this isn’t the full issue. Sure, we’ve found that over the coming few years, trillions of dollars of damage will be caused so that we can burn the most greenhouse-intensive fossil fuel. But try telling that to someone like Noto, from Indonesia. His farming livelihood has been destroyed and now ekes out a living digging sand for less than $8 a day. Or see how much a $700 billion damage bill matters to people who have lost family members through illness caused my pollutants emitted through mining and burning of coal. The more we learn about coal, the more illogical and morally wrong it sounds to keep on burning using it for electricity. We have better ways. Ways of creating energy that doesn’t harm the surrounding environment, that doesn’t rely on fuels that not only are economically volatile, but fundamentally polluting. Greenpeace has already shown that we can phase out coal in Australia by 2030, all with a net gain to employment, electricity costs and emissions. With the imperative of climate change so strong, there is no reason why we should be doing any less than phasing out coal and replacing it with the emission free renewable energy technologies that we know are able to provide out energy. The power and influence of the coal industry is evident in our report, but it’s also evident in the Australian Government’s policy making on climate change. We need now, more than ever, for Prime Minister Rudd, Minister Penny Wong and all those going to Poznan for the climate change negotiations to free themselves from the clutches of the coal industry and commit to a target for reducing greenhouse emissions that means rapid and wholesale transformations in how we produce energy. The more we keep burning coal, the greater it will cost us. So, the true cost of coal? To answer that is to put a price on a healthy, liveable planet.