Health impacts of coal quantified – public lenders urged to act
Bankwatch Mail | 10 May 2013
The findings of a recent report entitled ‘The unpaid health bill: How coal power plants make us sick’ (pdf), released by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), detail the health impacts of existing coal in Europe and quantify the associated costs of mortality and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease due to coal pollution.
This article is from Issue 56 of our quarterly newsletter Bankwatch Mail
Estimating health costs of EUR 15.5 billion to 42.8 billion per year from coal power generation in the EU, rising to EUR 54.7 billion per year if Croatia, Serbia and Turkey are also included in the assessment, the report’s findings cast a shadow on lending by EU financial institutions in support of new coal projects.
How, then, is coal pollution making people sick?
Even modern coal-fired power plants release large quantities of air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. Coal power generation contributes significantly to air pollution in Europe, which European respiratory experts have called an ‘invisible killer’ and one of today’s most important public health threats. The main contribution is in the form of secondary inorganic aerosols, which are part of particulate matter, and which are formed in the atmosphere from SOx and NOx, as well as ground level ozone forming from nitrogen oxides.
“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.”
Dr. Peter Liese, Member of the European Parliament, cited in the HEAL report
Both substances – particulate matter and ozone – are the most worrying for human health, and no safe levels have been established at which these pollutants would cause no harm to human health.
The HEAL report summarises the scientific evidence on how long-term exposure to these air pollutants affects the lungs and the heart. Well known long-term effects of air pollution are chronic respiratory diseases, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer, and cardiovascular diseases, such as myocardial infarctions, congestive heart failure, ischemic heart disease and heart arrhythmias.
But air pollution can already affect our health in the short term. Impacts include respiratory symptoms, such as chest tightness and coughing, as well as exacerbated asthma attacks. Children, older people and patients with an underlying condition are more susceptible to these effects. Recent research suggests that air pollution may also result in low birth weight and pre-term delivery as a result of maternal exposure during pregnancy.
Two European public banks are currently reviewing their energy lending policies. We call for an end to coal subsidies.
An assessment commissioned by HEAL for the report concludes that 18,200 premature deaths, about 8,500 new cases of chronic bronchitis, and over 4 million lost working days each year can be linked to coal pollution. As air pollutants can travel over long distances and across borders, the whole European population is affected by coal pollution.
Health experts from HEAL’s network as well as Members of the European Parliament express concerns in the report about the current growth trend in European coal consumption and about the high contribution of coal-fired power plants to climate change, which itself will create more costly public health problems, especially amongst patients, the young and the elderly. Coal-fired power plants contribute 20 percent of the EU’s CO2 emissions.
Given this double threat to health from coal-fired power plants today and in the future, HEAL is calling on decision makers to phase out coal by 2040 in the EU. As a first step, national moratoria on building new plants should be set – these should be complemented by national phase-out plans.
In the meantime, however, a significant threat to public health is set to persist, especially given the unambitious emission limit set by the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which is already outdated by Chinese and US standards. In addition, implementation of the IED still has to speed up, and the plans of 14 EU member states to obtain a derogation for their existing coal fleet from the already unambitious standards constitutes a major concern for public health.
Current levels of air pollution in the EU, especially from fine particulate matter, give rise to concern as they are well above the values recommended by the World Health Organisation. To protect the health of European citizens no derogations should be granted for compliance with the IED.
In addition Croatia, as a future EU member state, should implement the IED on the same time scale as existing member states, and all candidate countries should be encouraged to do likewise, especially given that a number of new coal plants are planned in these countries – it should not be forgotten that any such new coal plants would operate for at least 40 years, thus ‘locking in’ hazardous pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions for decades.
In this context a key recommendation being promoted by HEAL is for the ending 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. HEAL has already submitted this position as part of the consultation process on the review of the energy policy of the European Investment Bank.
Given its importance as a major investor in central and eastern Europe, including in several accession countries where the development of new coal-fired plants is becoming an increasingly contentious issue, the EBRD too must give due consideration to these new findings. A major re-think from investors is needed, so that support for coal plants, coal mining and infrastructure projects that would contribute to an increase in coal capacity comes to an end, for the benefit of the European public.
Julia Huscher is Coal and Health Officer for the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a leading European not-for-profit organisation that addresses how the environment affects health in the European Union.
HEAL’s report is available in pdf at: