Green light for Adani will mean more death and destruction around the world

Green light for Adani will mean more death and destruction around the world
Gideon Polya and Richard Hil

30 June 2017


Flash point

The proposed Adani mine complex in Queensland’s Galilee Basin has become Australia’s major environmental and Indigenous rights flash point.  Federal and state governments, the fossil fuel industry, Traditional Owners, and activists are engaged in a bitter stand-off, each hoping they will prevail.

But with arguments for the mine being tossed around like confetti, and much deceit and ethical blindness, the Coalition Government and Labor Opposition, alongside State Labor in Queensland, have largely ignored the science, particularly relating to the impact of coal extraction on climate change. (This ignorance also extends to the law which, in mining impact assessment cases, does not factor in climate change). Indeed, the Turnbull government regards coal as pivotal to the nation’s long term “energy mix”, which also includes “unconventional” gas production, as well as clean energy supply. 

This approach is both perverse and dangerous. Coal is an investment fizzer. Its main supporters are the fossil fuel industry, and a gaggle of right wing politicians and business people with questionable ethics.  The Adani project, if it goes ahead, will be the nation’s biggest coal complex, even though it is actively opposed by scientists and science-informed environmentalists because of the threat it poses to the Galilee Basin and especially the Great Barrier Reef, including the 60,000 jobs and $6 billion annual income generated by this once pristine natural wonder. This threat to the reef is both direct – dredging and spoil impacts on the marine environment –and indirect – exacerbated global warming from burning the coal (in India) with the climate feedback loop hitting the reef even harder. 

The Adani project will be the nation’s biggest coal complex and poses major threats to the Galilee Basin and the Great Barrier Reef



Killer coal
Threatening jobs and income is one thing, killing people is another. But that’s precisely what the mine will do to tens of thousands of people around the world.  Pollutants from burning coal are deadly. Estimates drawn from global comparative data reveal that pollutants from burning Adani coal could kill up to 13,000 people annually and about 500,000 over the lifetime of the mine.

But it may be worse; a lot worse. Consider for example, the impact on India where most of the Adani coal will be exported.  In a recent article published in The Lancet, researchers estimated that currently 1.1 million Indians die each year from ambient air pollution. About half of these premature deaths are caused by coal burning for power. Based on this India-specific data, the Adani coal could kill an additional 35,000 people annually and 1.4 million people over the life-time of the Carmichael mine.

Adani’s potential contribution to the global death toll adds to an even grimmer picture.
According to the World Health Organisation, there are about 7 million deaths each year from air pollution (notably from fine carbon particulates and nitrogen oxides).

The independent environmental research organisation, DARA, estimates that about 0.4 million people die annually from anthropogenic climate change, but this figure is probably conservative given that 17 million people die each year from deprivation in tropical or sub-tropical ‘developing’ countries (minus China) that are already impacted by human-made climate change. Presently in northern Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen around 20 million people are facing famine and mass starvation in this climate change- and war-impacted region, with women and children most at risk.

On a global level, leading climate scientists predict that only 0.5 billion people will survive this century if anthropogenic climate change is not requisitely addressed. In other words, about 10 billion premature deaths are forecast this century, overwhelmingly in developing countries, if climate change is not properly addressed. 

According to the World Coal Association, global production of coal in 2013 was 7,823 million tonnes, of which 336 million tonnes were Australian coal exports. It is estimated that pollutants from the burning of this coal for energy or metallurgy purposes are associated with about 1.75 million outdoor pollution-related deaths per annum. From this global comparative data, we can crudely estimate that pollutants from the burning of Australia’s annual coal exports of 336 million tonnes would be associated with 75,000 global deaths per year. 


Slow violence
A key caveat to this argument is that coal burning pollutants do not kill immediately – as with the effects of pollutants from cigarette smoking, the deadly outcomes may occur decades later. This is a form of slow violence. Carbon fuel burning has been increasing rapidly as reflected in rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, as measured by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at Mauna Loa in Hawaii since 1960.   Atmospheric CO2 is now a record circa 405 parts per million (ppm) and is increasing at a record 3 ppm per year. Accordingly, the present 7 million air pollution deaths annually may under-estimate the eventual future annual death toll due to present air pollution.

Polls around the world show that citizens, including those in Australia, are deeply concerned about greenhouse gas pollution, consequent human-made global warming and an escalating climate emergency. They’re right to be concerned. The implications for the environment are horrendous. In addition to wreaking havoc on ecosystems, rising carbon emissions will result in higher levels of human morbidity (sickness) and mortality (death). 

Australia is among the world leader in greenhouse gas

Currently, India burns 924 million tonnes of coal each year. Assuming the total of 2,300 million tonnes of Adani coal to be exported will go to India and that 50 percent of ambient air pollution in India is due to coal-fired power generation (as asserted by major India media outlets), it is estimated that Indian deaths due to combustion of Adani coal over the lifetime of the Adani project will total 1.4 million.

Australia is among the world leaders in annual per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution and has been ranked by the German Climate Watch Index as second only to Saudi Arabia for climate change inaction. With 0.3 percent of the world’s population, Australia has a domestic plus exported GHG pollution equivalent to 4.4 percent of the world’s total. Many Australians will surely be utterly repulsed by the long-term prospect of 1,400,000 Indian deaths due to the Australian Government-approved export and burning of Adani coal over the next 4 decades. 

Perhaps this moral dilemma would be clearer to Australians if, like Canada, we were exporting deadly asbestos to India.


Polya, G. “Latest Lancet Data Imply Adani Australian Coal Project Will  Kill 1.4 Million Indians”, Countercurrents, 21 April2017: .“Stop air pollution deaths”:


*Dr Gideon Polya was formerly a Reader in Biochemistry at La Trobe University, Melbourne., and Dr Richard Hil is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University, Gold Coast, and Convenor of the Ngara Institute.

Our thanks go to Peter Brennan, Kristen Lyons and Anthony Esposito for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.