Ensuring Clean Energy isn’t the New Cane Toad

Renewable energy is touted as the great hope for our planet’s future, but is it as clean as it’s cracked up to be?

Australia’s top pollution researchers are reviewing the benefits and pitfalls of solar, wind, hydro and other renewable energy options to ensure they’re adopted as effectively and safely as possible.

The expert group, called the Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research (CAR), will be the first in Australia to investigate how these popular new forms of energy will impact on our health.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm to do away with fossil fuels and embrace renewables, and rightly so,” says Head of CAR, Professor Guy Marks. “The problem is there are a lot of assumptions that clean energy is going to help us live healthier lives. Certainly, we’d love to think that’s the case, but we need to make sure there are no unforeseen side-effects.”

CAR is a NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence bringing together researchers who investigate how environmental pollutants affect our health. The issue is a critical one, with pollution now regarded as the world’s largest single environmental health risk, according to the World Health Organization. Air pollution alone has been linked to more than a quarter of all deaths from lung cancer, stroke and heart disease. Pollutants in the air, water and soil were responsible for nine million deaths globally in 2015, the Lancet Commission recently reported. The economic toll is also high, with pollution costing the planet $4.6 trillion a year.

Launched in 2013, CAR has been re-funded a further five years to continue its work investigating how pollution from fossil fuels, coal and bushfires affect the health of Australians. Excitingly, the group of 30 eminent researchers has extended its focus to include renewable energy options and how to adopt them to maximize health benefits.

Professor Marks, from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research and the University of NSW, says most people firmly agree that to tackle climate change we need to move away from traditional fossil fuels and towards renewable forms of energy. “But a key question remains: What is the best way to achieve this transition? That is, how can we transition to renewables in the cheapest, most efficient way and with the least economic, social and health impacts? Our role is to make sure that health impacts are considered.”

Logic suggests that burning of fossil fuels contributes significantly to air pollution, greenhouse gases and health problems so switching to renewables is likely to reduce pollution and improve health, Professor Marks explains. Indeed, international studies comparing fossil fuels with clean energy show huge reductions in both pollutants and premature deaths.

“However, the reality may be more complicated because this type of analysis focuses only on the benefits of renewables and assumes there are no adverse health consequences arising from their use,” the expert says. “This may not be a valid assumption, particularly when you consider the manufacture, transport and disposal of renewable energy sources, all of which may generate environmental impacts with adverse health consequences.”

CAR researchers propose a new model to evaluate health implications, both positive and negative, of renewable energy projects or technologies. This assessment is carried out at each stage of a project’s life, allowing policy makers to mitigate any health risks. “After all, as Australians have learnt to our great cost through our cane toad experience, what appears like a great solution to a problem may not be as rosy as first thought.”

To mark its re-launch, CAR will hold an official launch of the Centre, followed by an Energy Transitions Forum at the Melbourne Town Hall on 23 March. The event, from 10am-4pm, brings together policy makers, researchers and members of the community to tackle the issue of renewables and their impact on health. Six experts will speak followed by a Q&A. For further information, email car@sydney.edu.au.

About CAR

The Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research (CAR) brings together more than 30 researchers at the cutting edge of their fields to study how environmental pollutants affect our health. CAR is an NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence (CRE). As a CRE, CAR does not direct research projects but instead supports teams of researchers to pursue collaborative projects and to develop their capacity.

Our vision is for a healthier community through cleaner air and cleaner energy sources.