Every coal-fired power station switched off will bring great benefits that reach beyond national borders, for both human health and the climate.
In 2013, air pollutant emissions from coal-fired power stations in the EU were responsible for over 22,900 premature deaths, tens of thousands of cases of ill-health from heart disease to bronchitis, and up to €62.3 billion in health costs. As air pollution travels far beyond national borders, a full coal phase-out in the EU would bring enormous benefits for all citizens across the continent, according to the report “Europe’s Dark Cloud: How coal-burning countries make their neighbours sick”.
Each coal power plant closed will provide major health benefits, not only for those living nearby, but also for those abroad. For example, the planned UK phase-out of coal by 2025 could save up to 2,870 lives every year, of which more than 1,300 in continental Europe. A German phase-out of coal could avoid more than 1,860 premature deaths domestically and almost 2,500 abroad every year.
The analysis of transboundary impacts shows that the five EU countries whose coal power plants do the most harm abroad are: Poland (causing 4,690 premature deaths abroad), Germany (2,490), Romania (1,660), Bulgaria (1,390) and the UK (1,350). It also shows that the countries most heavily impacted by coal pollution from neighbouring countries, in addition to that from their own plants are: Germany (3,630 premature deaths altogether), Italy (1,610), France (1,380), Greece (1,050) and Hungary (700).
The study used data from 257 (of the total of 280) coal power stations that report SO2, NOx and particulate matter (PM) emissions to the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (EPRTR) and for which 2013 data was available. It is noticeable that the 30 most polluting coal power plants – the “Toxic 30” – alone were responsible for more than half of the premature deaths and health costs (see figure).
“The report underlines the high costs to health that come with our reliance on coal power generation. It also debunks the myth that coal is a cheap energy source. Clearly, no country on its own can solve the problem of air pollution from energy production,” said Anne Stauffer, Deputy Director of Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).
Looking at greenhouse gases, the 280 coal plants released 755 million tonnes of CO2, which represents around 18 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. Almost half of these CO2 emissions (367 million tonnes in 2014) came from the 30 highest-emitting plants – the “Dirty 30”. Three countries are home to 19 of the “Dirty 30” plants, namely Germany (eight), Poland (six) and the UK (five).
The report recommends that a full coal phase-out should be one of the EU’s stated goals and that speeding up the process of transitioning out coal will require stiffening of specific EU policies, including a rapid and ambitious structural reform of the EU Emissions Trading System in order to put a meaningful price on carbon emissions. This should be accompanied by the introduction of an Emissions Performance Standard (EPS) for CO₂ from power plants to provide a clear investment signal for the decarbonisation of the power sector.
In addition, the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) and National Emissions Ceilings Directive (NECD) must introduce stricter pollution limits for the emissions they cover, and EU funding instruments need to be reformed so that they aid the transition away from coal and other fossil fuels and support regions and communities with mining region transformation.
“The report shows that every coal-fired power station switched off will bring great benefits reaching beyond national borders, for both human health as well as climate” – Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network Europe concluded. “After the Paris Climate Agreement, EU leaders have even more responsibility to dramatically ramp up efforts to shut down all coal power plants and swiftly move to 100 per cent renewable energy”.