Coal power must be replaced with green energy

Health damage and loss of life linked to coal burning are entirely unnecessary. Photo: Kara Allyson cc by-nc-sa

An additional 32,000 life years would be lost every year if the coal-fired power plants currently under construction or being planned in the EU go into operation.

In the EU, coal-fired power plants are the largest source of sulphur dioxide emissions, one of the key causes of particulate pollution. They also emit huge quantities of nitrogen oxides, as well as fine ash and soot particles that contribute to smog formation, and are the largest source of arsenic and mercury emissions.

To find out more about the health impacts of coal-burning power plants in the EU, Greenpeace International commissioned a study from Stuttgart University. Based on the results from this study, the new Greenpeace report investigates the health impacts of each of the 300 operating large coal-fired power plants in the EU, as well as the predicted impact of the 50 new large-scale coal projects if they come online.

The approximately 300 large coal-fired power plants that are in operation in the EU produce a quarter of all electricity consumed. They are responsible for over 70 per cent of the EU’s sulphur dioxide emissions and over 40 per cent of nitrogen oxides emissions from the power sector and account for approximately half of all industrial mercury emissions, and a third of industrial arsenic emissions into the air. These coal-fired power plants are also responsible for almost a quarter of the EU’s emissions of the main greenhouse, gas carbon dioxide.

Using a sophisticated health impact assessment model, the study estimates that pollution from coal-fired power plants in the EU resulted in approximately 22,000 premature deaths, shortening the lives of Europeans by an estimated total of 240,000 lost life years in 2010. In countries with heavy coal use, the results indicate that more people are killed by air pollution from coal than in traffic accidents. In the same year, illnesses and health problems from coal pollution were associated with an estimated total of 5 million lost working days.

Emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and dust from coal burning are the biggest industrial contributors to microscopic particulate pollution that penetrates deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream. The pollution harms the health of babies, children and adults, causing heart attacks and lung cancer, as well as increasing asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. Moreover, coal burning releases tens of thousands of kilograms of toxic metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium, contributing to cancer risk and harming children’s development.

Despite these health risks, Greenpeace notes that European governments have failed to steer clear of this dirty old-fashioned energy source, with coal burning increasing in the EU each year from 2009 to 2012, and with more than 50 new polluting power plants in development.

Air pollution is transported long distances by the winds, crosses borders and affects everyone in Europe, even in those countries with little or no domestic coal burning. As such, it is in the interests of all EU countries to act to stem these emissions. According to the modelling results, another 32,000 life years would be lost every year if the power plants currently under construction or at the planning stage go into operation – a total of 1.3 million lost life years if the power plants operate for a full lifetime of 40 years.

These serious health impacts are expected despite the significant advances in end-of-pipe pollution controls, such as flue gas desulphurisation, NOx catalysts and particulate filters. While the coal-fired power plants of today have lower emissions than those of last century, they continue to emit air pollutants that exact a heavy toll on people’s health.

According to Greenpeace, there is no such thing as clean coal. Even so-called “clean coal” – the favourite buzzword of the energy lobby – is unacceptably dirty, as shown by the results in the report.

Consequently, the only way to eliminate the thousands of deaths associated with coal burning in Europe is to phase out these dirty power plants in favour of clean and modern renewable energy sources.

Greenpeace concludes that the health damage and loss of life linked to coal burning are entirely unnecessary, as renewable energy and the latest cutting-edge energy-efficiency solutions enable us to keep our lights on without a single new coal-fired power plant, and to start phasing out all existing coal use in EU power generation. Coal burning also needs to be reduced rapidly, to stem the catastrophic impacts of climate change. In order to achieve this, European governments need to set targets for green energy that ensure coal can be phased out.

“This year is supposed to be the EU’s Year of Air,” writes Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International’s Executive Director. “Yet, Europe’s politicians are not stopping the more than 50 new coal-fired power plants being built or in the development stage that will increase the death toll. The coal industry will continue to have a licence to kill for decades. This death toll from coal must be stopped.”

Christer Ågren

Silent Killers. Why Europe must replace coal power with green energy. Report by Greenpeace International. Published in June 2013.

Figure 1: Virtually everyone in Europe is breathing in invisible pollution from coal-fired power plants’ smokestacks, resulting in an estimated total of 22,000 deaths in 2010. The colours show the estimated number of deaths in each 50 x 50 km grid tile. The blue dots mark the locations of the 100 most polluting power plants in Europe.

Map source: Greenpeace modelling using the EMEP MSC-W atmospheric chemistry-transport model, input data provided by EMEP and power plant emission data from the E-PRTR database.

Figure 2: EU’s new air pollution rules for coal-fired power plants allow much higher emissions than can be achieved with best available technology, and more than 10 times higher emissions than a new gasfired power plant.


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