TODAY’S STUDY: COAL VS NEW ENERGY IN EUROPE, A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH
Silent Killers; Why Europe Must Replace Coal Power with Green Energy
June 2013 (Greenpeace International)
32,000 life years would be robbed every year if the coal-fired power plants currently under construction or in planning go into operation. This loss of life is entirely unnecessary, as renewable energy and the latest cutting-edge energy-efficient solutions enable us to keep Europe’s lights on.
Coal-fired power plants are among the worst sources of toxic air pollutants in the EU and globally. Acid gas, soot, and dust emissions from coal 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 problems1. Tens of thousands of kilograms of toxic metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium are spewed out of the stacks2, contributing to cancer risk and harming children’s development. Despite these health risks, European governments have failed to steer clear of the dirty old- fashioned energy source, with coal burning increasing in Europe each year from 2009 to 2012, and with more than 50 new dirty power plants in development.
To shed light on the health impacts of coal-burning power plants in Europe, a report was commissioned from the Stuttgart University. The report, which is the basis for this Greenpeace International publication, investigates the health impacts of each of the 300 operating large power plants in the EU, as well as the predicted impact of the 50 new projects if they come online. Using a sophisticated health impact assessment model, the report estimates that pollution from coal-fired power plants in the EU resulted in thousands of 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 coal than in traffic accidents3. The research estimates that a total of approximately 5 million working days were lost in 2010 due to illnesses and disability associated with pollution from coal-fired power plants.4 The estimated negative health impacts from coal power plant pollution in Europe in 2010 – measured in decreased life expectancy – was equivalent to the damage to health from the smoking of 22 million cigarettes by European citizens every day of that year5. The 11% increase in coal burning in Europe from 2009 to 20126 will have caused a similar increase in the negative impacts on the population’s health, amounting to a potential increase of more than a thousand deaths throughout the EU7.
This pollution crosses borders and affects everyone in Europe, even in those countries with little or no domestic coal burning. As such, all EU countries have an interest to act to stem these emissions. To add insult to injury, the coal industry is building or planning more than 50 new power plants in Europe. According to the modelling results, another 32,000 life years would be robbed every year if the power plants currently under construction or in planning go into operation – a total of 1.3 million lost life years if the power plants operate for a full lifetime of 40 years. The research found that the worst offenders among EU countries are Poland, Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, and the UK. The utilities with the worst estimated health impacts are PGE (Poland), RWE (Germany), PPC (Greece), Vattenfall (Sweden) and ČEZ (Czech Republic). This loss of life is entirely unnecessary, as renewable energy and the latest cutting-edge energy-efficiency solutions enable us to keep Europe’s lights on without a single new coal-fired power plant, and to start phasing out all existing coal in Europe’s 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.
What is a “lost life year”?
The Stuttgart University report converts the estimate of deaths attributed to air pollution into the amount of life years that were lost because of premature deaths. Each European whose death is attributable to the exposure to particulate pollution has his or her life shortened by an estimated 11 years, and each death attributable to ozone exposure loses nine months of life. The Stuttgart University results indicate that in 2010 approximately 22,000 deaths were attributable to pollution from coal-fired power plants, and the researchers estimate that their lives were shortened by a total of 240,000 years. The increased risk of death due to air pollution has been estimated in a study that followed 500,000 adults in 50 US states with different air pollution levels between 1982 and 1999.
What is a “lost working day”?
Air pollution increases the risk of several diseases and health problems that can force people to take additional sick leave. This ranges from minor respiratory infections and coughs to recovery from heart attacks. The increase in sick leave days as a result of air pollution has been estimated from data collected in the US National Health Interview Survey. (See the Annex for details on how the health impacts of coal-fired power plants were estimated.)
…1-Introduction: No future for coal…2-The current health impacts of coal in Europe…3-The future: Choosing between polluting and clean energy…
Conclusions: What needs to be done Coal-fired power plants are estimated to have sent thousands of people to the grave prematurely in 2010, shortening the life of Europeans by an estimated total of 240,000 lost life years. Many more lives depend on whether we can stop new coal-fired power plants from being built, and how fast we can close down the old ones. Europe has made amazing progress in building a safe and clean energy system in the past years, but at the same time, lack of political resolve has allowed the polluting power plants to increase coal burning.
Europe has a choice. Setting ambitious targets for renewable energy, energy efficiency and CO2 at the EU level, and maintaining successful policies to promote strong renewable energy growth at the national level, would see Europe lead the way in transforming its energy system to pollution and CO2-free sources, while stimulating the economy and slashing the massive fuel import bill. In contrast, losing political leadership and falling back to last century’s energy policies amidst the economic turmoil would see Europe’s energy revolution hit the wall after an impressive start, locking in decades of pollution, as well as stifling innovation and growing employment in renewable energy.
It is time to stop listening to the polluting companies, who have undermined the health of Europeans for decades, and done their best to slow down progress in cutting CO2 emissions.