More than half of the health effects come from one tenth of the power plants.
Coal-fired power plants are universally bad insofar as they all pollute our air and release vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Yet not all coal-fired plants are equally pernicious in the same ways, a new study has found.
Plants in China and the United States, the two largest producers of coal power, as well as India, Germany and Russia, together account for nearly two-thirds (64%) of greenhouse gases released from the burning of coal, say researchers at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Environmental Engineering who conducted the study. Yet when it comes to adverse effects on people’s health it is power plants in India that exert the worst toll in the world, although elsewhere too in the developing coal-fired plants are responsible for high levels of air pollution.
The reason for this disparity is that the United States, wealthy European countries like Germany and China all have modern power plants that burn coal with a high calorific value. Meanwhile, developing countries such as Russia, Poland and India continue to rely on older and outdated power plants that burn cheaper low-quality coal and are equipped with insufficient flue gas treatment. “More than half of the health effects can be traced back to just one tenth of the power plants” in the world, explains Christopher Oberschelp, the study’s lead author. “These power plants should be upgraded or shut down as quickly as possible.”
In other words, the gap between wealthy and developing countries is widening when it comes to adverse health effects from coal-fired power. This will of course come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the different levels of air and water pollution in Germany and Poland, two European Union neighbors that both rely heavily on coal for electricity generation. Whereas Germany’s plants tend to be highly efficient in filtering out large amounts of airborne toxins and particles, much of Poland is blanketed in a thick noxious smog for much of the year.
The situation is even worse in countries like India with constantly high levels of toxic air all year round, partly as a result of coal-fired energy generation. “In Europe, we contribute to global warming with our own power plants, which has a global impact,” Oberschelp observes.
“However, the local health damage caused by particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide occurs mainly in Asia, where coal power is used to manufacture a large proportion of our consumer products,” he adds.
Phasing out coal-fired plants in general and excessively polluting ones in particular should be a high priority. Yet in India and China growing economies and changing lifestyles come with increasingly high energy needs so the shuttering of coal-fired plants is unlikely to proceed apace, if at all, simply for economic reasons.
“The initial investment costs for the construction of a coal power plant are high, but the subsequent operating costs are low. Power plant operators thus have an economic interest in keeping their plants running for a long time,” the researchers explain. “The best option is therefore to not build any new coal power plants,” Oberschelp adds. “From a health and environment perspective, we should move away from coal and towards natural gas – and in the long term, towards renewable energy sources.”