Australia’s SO2 pollution shows coal is by far the most costly generator of electricity 


A report released today by Greenpeace, shows the pall of sulphur dioxide (SO2) radiating from coal-fired power stations in the Lake Macquarie and Hunter Valley regions of NSW and the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, and directly impacting more than two million people in the nearby densely populated cities of Sydney and Melbourne. 

Analysis of the NASA satellite data places Australia 12th on an index of the world’s top emitting countries for human-caused sulphur dioxide pollution (as distinct from those affected by volcano emissions).

“Australia’s energy transition is underway, and the sooner we can replace coal-fired power stations, the sooner we can avoid the associated harms to health including increased asthma in children, and increased particle pollution that can damage the lungs and other organs,” Greenpeace Campaigner, Jonathan Moylan told pv magazine.

In the meantime, he said “We need to make sure that the harm is minimised for communities who are most directly affected. 

“At the moment our power stations are emitting toxic pollution at levels that would be illegal in many other parts of the world; the sulphur dioxide emission rates are up to eight times higher than in China, and significantly higher than in the European Union.”

The human cost of unfettered coal-fired power-station licences

In a study published in November 2018, leading epidemiologist and GP Dr Ben Ewald found that in New South Wales air pollution from the state’s five power stations is estimated to annually lead to 279 deaths in people aged 30 to 99; it results in 233 babies being born weighing less than 2,500 grams and suffering the often lifelong consequences; and it causes 361 people who would not otherwise develop type 2 diabetes to develop this chronic disease.

Ewald’s study, The health burden of fine particle pollution from electricity generation in NSW focuses on just one state. But it correlates with NASA global data which shows the distances which the pall of pollution can travel, and that in Australia its impact spans the 50-150 kilometre distance between the coal-fired power stations in the Hunter Valley and the Central Coast — and the major population centres of Newcastle and Sydney.

The worst hotspot of SO2 pollution in Australia as captured by the satellite data is the complex of mining operations including copper and lead smelters in Mt Isa in Queensland.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has calculated that throughout Australia, “Ambient air pollution contributes to over 3,000 premature deaths each year,” and that even at low concentrations, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (03) are impacting public health.

Ewald says sulphur dioxide is a respiratory irritant and short-term exposure can cause asthma, particularly in children and the elderly, but he says, a more insidious and deadly problem comes from the fine particles formed as SO2 reacts with other compounds in the atmosphere: “the gas turns into fine particles in the atmosphere, and those particles contribute to both heart and lung disease,” by triggering a low-grade inflammatory response in the body.

The spread of disease influence from Bayswater and Eraring Power Stations, as animated from NASA satellite data. Image: Greenpeace Australia

An opportunity to improve Australian standards

The Greenpeace report comes as the National Environment Protection Measures (NEPM) are being reviewed for the first time since 1998, by state, territory and federal environment ministers who will vote on new emissions standards in December this year.

DEA has mounted a campaign to highlight the significance of this meeting, and urging the public to call for strong air pollution standards.

Its recommendation is to radically revise our current one-day sulphur dioxide standard of 80 parts per billion (ppb) to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) one-day sulphur dioxide standard of 8 ppb.

And to update our current annual nitrogen dioxide standard of 30 ppb to the world’s highest standard of 9 ppb.

Environmental Justice Australia emphasises that “Coal-fired power stations are … the biggest sources of nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide in the country.”

The Victorian air pollution hotspot as shown by NASA satellite and animated by Greenpeace, affects a population of more than 470,000 people with toxic sulphur dioxide emissions. Image: Greenpeace Australia

Countries such as the US and China, once major emitters of SO2, have rapidly reduced their emissions, says the Greenpeace report, “by switching to clean energy sources and particularly China achieved it through dramatically improving the emission standards and enforcement for SO2 control.”

Ewald told pv magazine, “20 or 40 years ago we didn’t understand the air-pollution science as well, so these power stations were given licences to pollute at high levels, but in the intervening time, the science has become much clearer, and I think those risks are no longer acceptable.”

An important interim measure for a country transitioning to clean energy

The Newcastle-based GP and senior lecturer at Newcastle University School of Medicine and Public health, says it is not prohibitively expensive to retrofit existing power stations with SO2 -capture technology, known as flue-gas desulphurisation.

“Post-combustion scrubbers are standard practice all around the world, except in a few places such as Australia, where the licenses are so generous that power stations don’t have to have them,” says Ewald.

Climate Change, Air Pollution and Health in Australia, one in a series of Climate Change Blueprints published by UNSW over the past few years estimates Australia’s health burden due to unchecked air pollution at between $11 billion and $24 billion per annum.

Politicians and the industry constantly say that coal is cheap, but if you factor in the costs of pollution to human health, it’s the most expensive way to produce electricity. And  those costs are not borne by big polluters, they’re borne by all of us,” says Moylan.

Moylan describes sulphur dioxide as “an invisible killer”. But, he says, “it can’t hide from satellites, and we hope this report will go a long way towards making our invisible air pollution problem starkly visible to communities right across Australia”.


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