Coal costs health €43 billion a year

Photo: cori kindred/ BY-SA

A phase-out of coal power generation is imperative, with a moratorium on new coal power plants as a first step.

Health damage due to air pollution from coal-fired power stations adds a financial burden to the EU population of up to €42.8 billion a year, according to a new study published by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).

The report, entitled “The unpaid health bill: How coal power plants make us sick”, provides scientific evidence on the health impacts of air pollution from coal-fired power generation and calculations of the effects on chronic lung disease and some heart conditions.

It is estimated that the impacts in the EU amount to more than 18,200 premature deaths, or 196,200 life years lost, about 8,500 new cases of chronic bronchitis, and over four million lost working days each year. Adding emissions from coal power plants in Croatia, Serbia and Turkey, the figures for mortality would increase to 23,300 premature deaths, or 250,600 life years lost, while the total costs are up to €54.7 billion annually.

Together, coal power plants in three countries – Poland, Romania and Germany – are responsible for more than half of the total health impacts. Substantial impacts are further attributed to coal combustion in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Serbia, Turkey and the United Kingdom (see Table).

Table: Annual health costs associated with air pollution from coal-fired power generation per country. Based on 2009 emission data.

Coal power generation in Poland is associated with the highest health impacts as well as health costs, estimated at over €8 billion per year. Romania and Germany both rank second, with more than €6 billion in health costs each. The evaluation is based on a calculation of the costs associated with premature deaths resulting from exposure to coal-related air pollution, medical visits, hospitalisations, medication and reduced activity, including working days lost.

 “The findings are particularly worrying given that the use of coal is now rising after years of decline. The startlingly high costs to human health should trigger a major rethink on EU energy policy,” says Genon Jensen, Executive Director at HEAL.

The report launch marks the beginning of a coal and health campaign in which HEAL will work closely with medical, health and climate advocacy groups, especially in countries where coal is a particular threat to health.

On top of the benefits to health from cleaner air, the report also highlights how stronger regulation of coal would help mitigate climate change. Coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source in Europe – responsible for approximately 20 per cent of carbon emissions. Controlling long-term temperature rises and avoiding heat waves are particularly important for vulnerable groups, such as young children and older people and anyone with an existing respiratory or heart condition.

Member of the European Parliament and medical doctor Peter Liese recognises coal as both an immediate and a long-term threat to public health because of its contribution to climate change: “The EU has committed to protect public health from air pollution as well as from climate change impacts. As the use of coal in Europe is currently increasing, there is a significant threat to people’s health in the short and long term.”

HEAL’s report recommends that no new coal plants should be built and that Europe should abandon coal by 2040 for better public health (see Box with policy recommendations). The huge public health benefits that arise from decreasing the burning of fossil fuels such as coal can substantially mitigate costs of greenhouse gas reductions. Putting it the other way around, mitigating climate change saves enormous costs in air pollution control.

“If accepted, this approach would avoid the unnecessary respiratory and heart problems associated with exposure to coal pollutants in the air. It would offer longer-term health benefits by mitigating climate change. Opting for alternatives to coal would also put right a current injustice in which Europeans are made to shoulder the burden of an unpaid health bill caused by coal,” said Ms Jensen.

Christer Ågren

Source: HEAL press release 7 March 2013. Link to report on website

HEAL’s policy recommendations

To the EU

The phasing out of coal power in Europe is possible by 2040 and constitutes an important step to improve air quality, reduce chronic disease and cut greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. The EU should:

  • Ensure that the costs and benefits to health are taken into account in any energy and climate policy assessments and decisions.
  • Strengthen the Industrial Emission Directive, which regulates air pollution from coal power plants, by removing all exemptions for existing plants.
  • Adopt stricter emission limit values, comparable to recent Chinese and USA standards, for the whole of the EU by 2020 and introduce binding mercury emission limit values.
  • Make sure that Croatia as an EU accession country is required to meet EU pollution control standards for coal power plants without any derogation by 2018, and encourage EU candidate countries to do likewise.

Support a termination of all EU lending, including by EU financial institutions, to coal plants, coal mining and infrastructure projects that would contribute to an increase in coal capacity. Similarly, support an ending of EU subsidies for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies.

To national authorities

National authorities have to take the gloves off and reduce outdoor air pollution from coal power plants. In the interest of their citizens’ health as well as their neighbouring countries, national authorities should:

  • Introduce a moratorium on the construction of new coal power plants.
  • Develop a national phase-out plan for coal in power generation.
  • End all exemptions from the highest pollution control standards for existing coal plants.
  • End all direct and indirect subsidies and tax exemptions for hard coal and lignite mining as well as coal power generation by 2018, when direct hard coal mining subsidies are already required to end.


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