Air pollution from coal and lignite-fired power plants in Germany and Poland cause more than 4,600 premature deaths annually beyond their national borders, according to a new report.
The findings suggest that domestic clean air regulations will always fall short, by failing to account for cross-border healthcare and mortality costs of burning coal, calling for a more committed, pan-European approach.
The report used published air pollution emissions data, combined with a World Health Organisation methodology for health impacts, and weather dispersion models.
Emissions of NOX, SOX and particulates from coal power plants were associated with 22,900 premature deaths in 2013, the report estimated, using emissions data for 257 of the total 280 coal power plants in the EU.
About four-fifths of these deaths were associated with emissions from coal-fired power plants of very fine particulate matter called PM2.5, which can pass from the lungs into the bloodstream, and cause lung and heart disease. Although coal-fired power plants contributed only a small fraction of original emissions of “primary” PM2.5, they were major emitters of sulphur dioxide (SOX) and nitrous oxides (NOX), which react to form so-called secondary particulate matter.
PM2.5 particles travel hundreds of kilometres.
For example, coal power stations in Poland caused an estimated 5,800 annual premature deaths across the EU, the report estimated, but only 20% of these occurred in Poland. German power plants were responsible for an estimated 4,350 deaths, of which 1,860 were in Germany.
To date, some 16% of the EU’s present 280 coal-fired power plants have announced that they will close between 2016 and 2020. The report argued for a full coal phase-out in Europe. At present, only Britain and Finland have committed to such a phase-out. Other countries, such as Poland, Germany, Czech Republic and Spain, still support mining and/ or coal-fired power generation.
The 30 most toxic coal power plants were responsible for more than half of the premature deaths and associated health costs of air pollution, estimated at up to 62 billion Euros in 2013.
Number one in the report’s “Toxic 30” was Poland’s Bełchatów, contributing a total of almost 1,300 premature deaths. German plants were equipped with better filters, but also appeared high up because of the large volume of coal they burn. For example, Germany’s Neurath plant was 11th, reflecting the fact it burned 12 million tonnes of lignite in 2013.
There is also a climate change angle to phasing out coal. The European Union’s 280 operational coal-fired power stations were responsible for 18% of EU’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2014. The Bełchatów and Neurath power plants were the top two emitters of carbon dioxide in Europe.
Last week, the IEA reported that burning of coal and oil in power plants, industrial facilities and vehicles worldwide were the main cause of air pollution linked to around 3 million premature deaths annually.
The IEA expected deaths to grow to 4.5 million in 2040, under present policies. But it calculated that $4.8 trillion cumulative additional investment over the next 25 years in pollution control technologies and cleaner energy sources, such as renewables, would cut annual deaths from air pollution by 3.3 million annually by 2040, generating healthcare savings “many more times valuable”.