Coal burning costs UK between £2.5bn and 7bn from premature deaths

Bełchatów in Poland, Europe's largest brown coal power plant. Creative Commons: 2012.

Bełchatów in Poland, Europe’s largest brown coal power plant. Creative Commons: 2012.

Deaths caused by coal emissions cost the UK economy between £2.47bn and £7.15bn in 2013, a comprehensive overview of coal production in Europe has found.

The figure comprises mortality costs from coal-related respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, such as heart disease and lung cancer, which are linked to the 395 kilotons of pollutants emitted by UK coal plants.

According to the European Coal Map, authored by NGO umbrella group Climate Action Network Europe (CAN-E), an estimated 23 000 Europeans die prematurely due to exposure to the pollutants, causing equivalent mortality costs of between €21bn and €60.6bn.

The report also found that the UK was the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide from coal burning, after Germany and Poland.

Kathrin Gutmann, Cane’s coal policy coordinator told the Guardian:

The British government has not caught up with reality. It urgently needs a proactive strategy to manage a coal phase out. Energy utilities are already starting to spend billions of euros to shed some of their coal plants but governments like the UK are just hiding behind this power sector transformation.

Last month, Germany began a process of shutting down its five largest brown coal power plants.

However, the new survey says that Germany is still Europe’s biggest coal subsidiser, having given €30bn to the industry between 1999 and 2011.

In the UK, coal caused some 87m tonnes of CO2 emissions last year – 16% of all the country’s greenhouse gas output and a figure eight times higher than in France.

CAN-E calculated the health costs by mapping Europe’s 280 coal power plants and then multiplying their polluting emissions by the European Environment Agency’s estimate of the cost of mortality associated with those emissions.

The range of figures resulting from the calculations takes into account different estimates of the cost to the economy of individual deaths.

Julia Huscher, the coal officer for Health and Environment Alliance said that the new overview provided the first snapshot of how individual countries were contributing to Europe’s trans-boundary air pollution problem. She said:

We can now see that British power plants are responsible for very substantial emissions of classic air pollutants – nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides – and for the average European, that translates into more chronic illnesses like bronchitis, heart disease and asthma, and more premature deaths.

UK air quality has been in breach of EU standards for years. An estimated 29 000 Britons die prematurely each year from long-term exposure to air pollution including emissions from vehicles.

In April, the Supreme Court ordered the government to produce a plan for tackling the air pollution problem, which is due to be presented this month.

However, environmental lawyers say that the roll-back of green policies of the Conservative government, such as cutting renewable energy subsidy schemes, could cause a delay to effective action to curb air pollution.

Alan Andrews, a lawyer for Client Earth said:

While the Department of Food and Rural Affairs is furiously working away on their air quality plans, there seems to be a clear disconnect and lack of joined up thinking with other government departments going in the opposite direction and rolling back policies that will have a negative effect towards this toxic soup of pollution, which is harming the health of people in the UK.

Coal emits more CO2 for the same amount of energy produced than gas and oil. At the same time, it still makes up over a third of the UK’s energy supply, although its percentage of the energy mix was slightly down last year.

Because the vast majority of British pits were closed down in the 1980s and 90s, this coal has to be imported. In 2013, Russia contributed around a third of the UK’s coal supply, with the US, Colombia and other countries also being trade partners.

The coal map overview was released amid recent reports that G20 countries still invest up to US$770m per year in the fossil fuel companies despite their 2009 pledge to phase out subsidies.

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