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Health impact justifies renewable energy

We thank Medical Observer for permission to republish; a shortened version of this article appeared in the 16th October edition.

All of our activities and industries have differing, sometimes complex, health consequences.  A striking example is in electricity generation, where “renewables” and fossil fuel combustion have markedly contrasting implications for our health, both now and into the future.

Along with the undoubted health and social benefits derived from accessible and available electricity, there are also inherent, often unrecognised or unaccounted, adverse effects from these same energy generation processes.

If these “externalised” costs are significant and not captured by the market, they constitute “market failure”.  Climate change and air pollution in particular represent major failures and have prompted action to address them on economic grounds.

However, it is the daunting health impacts that now provide the most urgent and compelling reasons to reassess how we generate energy.

Wind generation is now comparable in cost to coal and gas generation even when the health costs are excluded, and according to government projections wind will be the cheapest form of power by 2020, with solar PV not far behind.

Wind power can provide cheap, almost emissions-free power generation and has displaced fossil fuel combustion where it has been deployed, so it has a pivotal role in addressing both climate change and air pollution reduction.

In recent years anti-wind groups have claimed that the low frequency or inaudible sound from turbines can have a wide array of heath impacts.

Wind turbines have now been in use for several decades, particularly in Europe, and often located in proximity to residential areas.  So it is rather surprising that health concerns have only recently emerged, and curiously, predominantly from English speaking Western countries.

There have now been 17 major reviews of the literature and research, including Australia’s NHMRC, all of which have found no evidence for adverse health effects, with the exception that some local residents may suffer annoyance from noise.  That is in contrast to the small number of non-peer reviewed, anecdotal reports that detail adverse effects.
Importantly, there is no known adequate patho-physiological mechanism to explain how sub-audible and low frequency sound might confer damage to our health.

If low frequency wind turbine noise were harmful, then why would people not experience similar effects when exposed to the wide variety of other environmental sources, some of which produce far higher sound pressures?

Even if there were occasional or localised ill effects from wind turbines, these are likely to be minor, temporary and entirely reversible.

Contrast this to the well-documented epidemiological and pathological effects arising from air pollution from fossil fuel combustion, which causes widespread respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Recent US and European studies examining this, have determined that once air pollution is accounted for, the cost of coal-fired electricity more than doubles.  Moreover reduction in air pollution confers immediate and progressive health related co-benefits and savings.

Climate change is already a significant determinant of global health, contributing to over 350,000 deaths, and trimming global GDP by 1.6%, per annum.  By 2030 these numbers are projected to escalate to 5 million deaths and 3.2% of GDP respectively.

With just 0.7 C warming so far; this year’s extensive, unexpected Arctic ice melting and plight of the Great Barrier Reef, should serve to remind us of the imperative and urgency of action.

If we are to avoid crossing the internationally agreed “2 degree” global warming target, then we have just 50 months left to reverse our emissions, after which we will pass a threshold where this previously determined “safe limit” becomes unattainable and obsolete.

Wind power provides a proven method of producing electricity and reducing pollution.  Combined with other renewable energy generation, it allows us to maintain the health benefits of electricity whilst minimising the social and environmental costs.

In fact, a renewable energy future is justifiable on health grounds alone.

George Crisp is the WA representative on the Management Committee of Doctors for the Environment Australia