Is Australia's biggest and most important export death?

The World Health Organisation has estimated that air pollution causes seven million deaths each year; one in eight deaths worldwide were attributed to air pollution. Much of this is due to coal burning and also to the burning of the various forms of petroleum.

Australia produces 5.5% of the world's coal and exports more coal than any other country; 38% of the world's total coal exports. Making the conservative assumption that only two million of the seven million deaths are due to coal burning we can calculate that Australian coal causes 110 000 deaths per year.

In January 2018 Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced his intention of greatly boosting Australia's arms industry, exporting even more death.

Written 2014/05/31, last edited 2023/11/25
Contact: David K Clarke – ©


An article published in the prestigious health journal, The Lancet, put numbers on the deaths caused by the burning of coal to generate electricity.

A big screen reminds people in Beijing of what a blue sky looks like
Beijing smog
Air pollution purchased from Australia
Image source: FengLi/Getty Images
This wind farm produces electricity without the air pollution
Waterloo Wind Farm, Australia
Waterloo Wind Farm, Mid North South Australia
The WHO report, summarised in The Guardian, states that air pollution is the world's single biggest environmental health risk.

The main sources of ambient air pollution are:

  1. the burning of forests in wild-fires or for clearing;
  2. the liquid fuels burned in motor vehicles, airplanes and ships;
  3. the burning of coal, lignite and peat for things like steel-making and power generation;
  4. the burning of rubbish: anything unwanted that will burn.
The main sources of air pollution in homes are coal smoke and wood smoke.

In this page I will deal mainly with the burning of Australian coal for power generation, called thermal coal; the burning of high-grade coal, called metallurgical coal, while not generally so polluting does add to the problem.

It is also necessary to mention that the burning of fossil fuels is one of the main causes of climate change, ocean acidification and sea level rise. Collectively these will kill even more people than air pollution.

In Australia our governments, federal and some state governments, cannot see past the profits that they believe can be made by digging up and exporting millions of tonnes of this killer commodity.

Outside Australia, people and the more progressive organisations are turning away from coal because they see its shortcomings and because they see it lacks a viable economic future. They are turning toward clean, non-polluting, renewable energy.

Australia has clear air like this because we are fortunate in having a big country with very low population density, and we export a lot of our air polluting coal rather than burning it ourselves. We are able to look after ourselves at the same time as we poison others.
A quote from a speech made by Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott on 2014/05/28 will be sufficient to show his total lack of understanding of reality and his government's lack of ethical standards:

"It's particularly important that we do not demonise the coal industry and if there was one fundamental problem, above all else, with the carbon tax [brought in by the previous far more responsible Gillard government] was that it said to our people, it said to the wider world, that a commodity which in many years is our biggest single export, somehow should be left in the ground and not sold. Well really and truly, I can think of few things more damaging to our future."
Ex-Prime Minister Abbott and those with similar disregard for the world's future would like to export even more coal and death, for the sake of short-term profits, and they will do so if the Australian people allow them to. Mr Abbott, who calls himself a Christian, has not the slightest conception of morality.

US President Barack Obama said in late May 2014:

"We don't have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children"


"As President, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that's beyond fixing."
By 2018 Mr Abbott had been removed from the Prime Ministership and had little political influence, but he and others obsessed with coal, of whom there are still many with great political influence in Australia, want to keep the coal-cash-cow going and want minimal, if any, action on climate change and associated problems. (Even by early 2021, the Morrison government continues it obsession with fossil fuels and go-slow campaign on renewable energy development.)

How much CO2?

In 2012 Australia mined about 430 million tonnes of coal. This was about 14 tonnes each second. When these 14 tonnes were burned they produced about 25 tonnes of CO2 every second – which goes straight into the atmosphere!

Deaths to be expected from proposed coal mines in the Galilee Basin, Queensland, should they ever eventuate

Just two mines will cause around 18 thousand deaths each year

Air pollution in Ninh Binh, north Vietnam
View of Ninh Binh
The view from our room at the top of a hotel in 2011. Smog like this is common in Vietnam and SE Asia generally in our experience; much of it would be due to burning fossil fuels.
Wikipedia gives world coal extraction as 7 865 million tonnes (MT) per year and total Australian extraction as 431MT.

As discussed above, from the WHO report, it is reasonable to accept that there are two million deaths caused by coal burning world-wide each year. If we accept that the deaths due to burning the coal exported from Australian mines cause deaths at the same rate we can do some calculations.

Several mines are proposed in the Galilee Basin in Queensland. Two of the largest:

  • Gina Rinehart's, Hancock Coal/GVK, Alpha Coal mine is expected to 'produce' 30MT/year, causing more than seven thousand deaths each year;
  • Clive Palmer's China First mine, at 40MT/yr will be responsible for over ten thousand deaths each year.
(The above production figures are from Wikipedia.)

A Net site called Facts and Details provides a shocking summary of the air pollution situation in China; India is similarly polluted.

China's cancer rates "exploding"; ABC

When China started its great economic and industrial growth a couple decades ago it built many, many coal-burning power stations. At some point it started importing millions of tonnes of Australian coal to burn in these. Since then China has had shocking air pollution, and now enough time has passed for cancers to have developed.

"China's cancer rates exploding, more than 4 million people diagnosed in 2015, study says". Written by ABC's China Correspondent Matthew Carney, 2016/03/24.

"In some of the industrial provinces, lung cancer rates have increased a staggering four-fold" and the cause seems to be air pollution, largely due to coal burning.

"Cancer has been the leading cause of death in China since 2010, with lung cancer causing the most deaths."

China is a major export market for Australian coal.

Air pollution kills a million people and costs India 10.7 trillion rupees annually

Manka Behi wrote an article for the Times of India in 2020/02/13 headlined "Pollution from fossil fuels costing India Rs 10.7 lakh crore every year". (Rs 10.7 lakh crore is 10.7 trillion rupees or about Aus$190 billion.)

The article went on to say that:

"The cost [of air pollution] for India is equivalent to 5.4% of its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP)." and

" million deaths per year in India are caused due to air pollution generated from burning fossil fuels. Apart from this, the pollution is also a major health threat to children."

India is one of Australia's biggest export markets for coal.

Related pages

Related pages on external sites

Fossil fuel air pollution responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide, page dated 2021/02/09. Research led by Harvard University in collaboration with UCL, the University of Birmingham and the University of Leicester has been published in the journal Environmental Research.

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