Air pollution is a public health crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it an invisible killer due to its contribution to early deaths and chronic health conditions such as strokes, heart attacks, cancers, and lung disease. While visibly polluted places like China and India grab headlines, in Europe air pollution levels remain way higher than the guidelines recommended by the WHO. A full nine out of ten people breathe unsafe air in Europe, and this is entirely preventable given this pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels, and coal in particular.
Coal is the most polluting of all energy sources. Toxic gases and particles from the smokestacks of coal power plants are dispersed all over Europe by the wind, putting public health at risk every hour of every day. This impact on human health has been very well researched for decades, enabling a sound estimate of coal’s health burden to be made.
In 2016, an expert group made this estimate, modelling the impact of the European Union’s coal power stations using air pollution power plant data from 2013. The results can be found in the report “Europe’s Dark Cloud – How coal-burning countries are making their neighbours sick”, published by CAN Europe, HEAL, Sandbag and WWF. In 2017, the same experts updated these health impacts with 2015 coal power plant emissions data, with the following findings:
Air pollution from coal power stations in the European Union caused an estimated 19,500 premature deaths in 2015 across Europe. The economic impact of these premature deaths along with the myriad of other health conditions caused by this air pollution is in the range of €29-54 billion.
The table below shows the breakdown of these health impacts on European citizens and their associated costs by the coal power stations located in the listed countries.
The health impacts fell only slightly from the previous analysis of 2013’s pollution data – by around 15% over two years. While there have been a number of changes to the dataset since the previous analysis as we have updated the list of operational power stations along with a refinement of some of the data, the reduced health impacts are broadly in line with the reduction in pollutant emissions. Where a like-for-like comparison is possible – SOx emissions fell by 14%, NOx by 13% and PM10 by 10% – as some power plants ran less, or their pollution abatement equipment was upgraded.
Toxic 30: Coal power plants most damaging to health
30 coal power stations with the largest emissions caused around half of all damage to health:
Compared to the 2013 TOP30 ranking there were some changes. Notably, five UK coal plants fell out of the top 30 list as their generation dropped substantially, replaced by renewables, and also Bulgaria’s relatively small Bobov Dol fell from #8 to #148 as it cut its huge SO2 emissions by installing flue gas desulphurisation technology.
However, there were two big climbers to note:
- The small Slovakian coal plant of Novaky rose to become the #2 polluter, because of its off-the-scale SO2 This happened because generation was switched to a now-defunct unit which had no pollution abatement equipment.
- Endesa’s Andorra station rose to the #5 polluter; Endesa’s five dirty Spanish coal plants collectively rose, to be as damaging as #1 polluter Bełchatów, even though they produced far less electricity.
Pollution travels. This is the key reason European countries need to eliminate coal simultaneously. Although a lot of pollution impacts are local, depending on prevailing weather conditions air pollution can travel up to several hundred kilometres. As a result, air pollution from coal power stations do not just impact the country that they are based in, they also cause health impacts in nearby countries.
The modelling provides us with:
- The health impact of each of the 282 EU coal power plants.
- The health impact in each country of all the EU’s coal power plants.
Therefore, it is possible to calculate the extent to which a country is a net importer or net exporter of health impacts.
For example: coal power stations operating in Poland cause 5,330 premature deaths across Europe (including within Poland) and further afield, however the EU’s coal power stations (including those located in Poland) cause “only” 1,620 premature deaths inside Poland, therefore Poland is a net exporter of 3,710 premature deaths – making it the largest exporter of premature deaths. In monetary terms, the costs of these premature deaths and other health impacts net exported from Poland amount to up to €10 billion. This demonstrates that, coal power stations in Poland do significantly more damage to the health of people living in neighbouring countries than to people living in Poland itself.
The reverse is most notably true of Italy and France – their citizens’ health is damaged more by their neighbours’ coal power stations than by air pollution from their own coal power stations.
Dirty 30: Coal power plants most damaging to climate
Besides air pollution, coal power plants also emit a lot of CO2, which contributes to climate change. The latest data available is for 2016, showing the dirtiest 30 coal power plants:
- Six out of the seven largest CO2 emitters are lignite plants in Germany.
- Since 2013, the top of the list has changed very little – the main change is the further rise up the list by German lignite plants.
- There are two new entries, Eemshaven (NL) and Hamburg-Moorburg (DE), both of which are coal plants that went into operation as recently as 2015.
- Maasvlatke retired in 2017. None of the other plants had at the time of writing (Nov 2017) retirement dates. However, plants in the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy and the UK should receive retirement dates as part of the implementation of the respective governments’ coal phase announcements.
Explore this health data and more with our interactive data tool.
For the full overview of the 2015 modelled health impacts per coal power station, please go to the Europe Beyond Coal: European Coal Plant database for . The coal power station map and data graphs also depict the health modelling findings.
- For more information on the data sources and the modelling methodologies please read here and the summary of the findings here.
- Find here the report “Europe’s Dark Cloud – How coal-burning countries are making their neighbours sick” (June 2016), which models 2013 pollution data.
- Find here the report “Lifting Europe’s Dark Cloud – How cutting coal saves lives” (October 2016), which looks at how many health impacts could be avoided if the EU implemented best available techniques at its coal power plants.