Air pollution from Europe’s 300 largest coal power stations causes 22,300 premature deaths a year and costs companies and governments billions of pounds in disease treatment and lost working days, says a major study of the health impacts of burning coal to generate electricity.
The research, from Stuttgart University’s Institute for energy economics and commissioned by Greenpeace International, suggests that a further 2,700 people can be expected to die prematurely each year if a new generation of 50 planned coal plants are built in Europe. “The coal-fired power plants in Europe cause a considerable amount of health impacts,” the researchers concluded.
Analysis of the emissions shows that air pollution from coal plants is now linked to more deaths than road traffic accidents in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. In Germany and the UK, coal-fired power stations are associated with nearly as many deaths as road accidents. Polish coal power plants were estimated to cause more than 5,000 premature deaths in 2010.
The cumulative impact of pollution on health is “shocking”, says an accompanying Greenpeace report. A total of 240,000 years of life were said to be lost in Europe in 2010 with 480,000 work days a year and 22,600 “life years” lost in Britain, the fifth most coal-polluted country. Drax, Britain’s largest coal-powered station, was said to be responsible for 4,450 life years lost, and Longannet in Scotland 4,210.
According to the study, Polish coal power plants have the worst health impact in the European Union. The Polish government and Polish utilities are planning to build a dozen new power plants. The utility companies with the worst estimated health impacts, according to the report, are PGE (Poland), RWE (Germany and UK), PPC (Greece), Vattenfall (Sweden) and ČEZ (Czech Republic).
Acid gas, soot, and dust emissions from coal burning are, along with diesel engines, the biggest contributors to microscopic particulate pollution that penetrates deep into the lungs and the bloodstream. The pollution causes heart attacks and lung cancer, as well as increasing asthma attacks and other respiratory problems that harm the health of both children and adults.
“Tens of thousands of kilograms of toxic metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium are spewed out of the stacks, contributing to cancer risk and harming children’s development,” says the Greenpeace report, which does not emphasize the impact of coal burning on climate change.
The 300 plants produce one-quarter of all the electricity generated in the EU but are responsible for more than 70% of the EU’s sulphur dioxide emissions and more than 40% of nitrogen oxide emissions from the power sector. The Greenpeace report notes that coal burning has increased in Europe each year from 2009 to 2012.
“The results are staggering. The only way to eliminate the health impacts associated with burning coal in Europe is to phase out these dirty power plants and replace them with clean renewable energy. The current EU renewable energy target has been proven to boost renewable energy and help modernize energy systems and the economy. Europe must continue down the path of clean renewable energy by setting an ambitious, binding 2030 renewable energy target,” said Greenpeace International energy campaigner Lauri Myllyvirta.
The air pollution from coal burning comes on top of transport emissions that are still increasing despite attempts by the EU to force reductions. According to the European Environmental Agency, more than 90% of urban population in the EU is exposed to fine particle (PM2.5) and ozone pollution levels above the World Health Organization guidelines.
Greenpeace International is calling on the European commission to come forward with proposals for a binding renewable energy target of 45% and a greenhouse gas reduction target of at least 55% by 2030
Coal-fired power plant in Bełchatów, Poland. This is the largest coal plant in Europe. Photo by: Stasisław/Public Domain.
CO2 emissions hit record in 2012
(06/10/2013) Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels use hit a record in 2012, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
(05/26/2013) Indonesia will go ahead with construction of what is set to be its largest coal-fired power plant in Batang, Central Java next year, a senior government official has said, downplaying opposition from environmental groups and the local community. Developers have struggled to acquire the approximately 200 hectares of land needed for the planned PLTU Batang plant, which would have a 2000 megawatt (MW) capacity. Residents of five villages have protested the project, with some refusing to release their land on fears of potential environmental damage to the area. Environmental groups also oppose the plant, saying it overlaps with a marine protected area and runs counter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions.
(05/01/2013) The cities of San Francisco and Seattle have pulled their money out of fossil fuel companies, taking a climate divestment campaign from college campuses to local government. The campaign group 350.org said on Thursday it had won commitments from a total of 10 cities and towns to divest from 200 of leading fossil fuel companies.
(04/29/2013) The environment is a public good. We all share and depend on clean water, a stable atmosphere, and abundant biodiversity for survival, not to mention health and societal well-being. But under our current global economy, industries can often destroy and pollute the environment—degrading public health and communities—without paying adequate compensation to the public good. Economists call this process “externalizing costs,” i.e. the cost of environmental degradation in many cases is borne by society, instead of the companies that cause it. A new report from TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity), conducted by Trucost, highlights the scale of the problem: unpriced natural capital (i.e. that which is not taken into account by the global market) was worth $7.3 trillion in 2009, equal to 13 percent of that year’s global economic output.
(04/22/2013) The world could be heading for a major economic crisis as stock markets inflate an investment bubble in fossil fuels to the tune of trillions of dollars, according to leading economists. “The financial crisis has shown what happens when risks accumulate unnoticed,” said Lord (Nicholas) Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics. He said the risk was “very big indeed” and that almost all investors and regulators were failing to address it.
(04/05/2013) Carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption in the United States during 2012 fell to the lowest level since 1994, finds a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a branch of the Department of Energy.
(04/02/2013) One kilometer off the Philippine island of Palawan lays the Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary; here forest grows unimpeded from a coral island surrounded by mangroves and coral reefs. Although tiny, over a hundred bird species have been recorded on the island along with a major population of large flying foxes, while in the waters below swim at least 130 species of coral fish, three types of marine turtles, and that curious-looking marine mammal, dugongs. Most importantly, perhaps, the island is home to the world’s largest population of Philippine cockatoos (Cacatua haematuropygia), currently listed as Critically Endangered. But, although uninhabited by people, Rasa Island may soon be altered irrevocably by human impacts.
(03/13/2013) India’s dependence on coal-fired power plants for energy may be leading directly to the deaths of 80,000 to 115,000 of its citizens every year, according to the first ever report on the health impacts of coal in the country. The report, commissioned by the Conservation Action Trust and Greenpeace-India, deals only with the direct health impact of coal and not climate change. But even ignoring the rising pain of global warming, the bleak report outlines that coal consumption in India is causing over 20 million asthma attacks, nearly a million emergency room visits, and killing some 10,000 children under five annually.
(02/25/2013) Nitrogen deposited on land and water in China increased 60 percent annually from the 1980s to the 2000s due to rising use of fertilizer, growth in livestock production, increased coal burning, and a sharp rise in car ownership, reports a study published last week in the journal Nature.