John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A look at the health consequences of coal's rising popularity.
Lots of the world's attention has been focused recently on the startlingly high levels of smog in China. But things aren't too great in Europe, either, where the popularity of coal-fired power plants is endangering the lives of entire generations of people.
That's according to a report released late last week by the Health and Environment Alliance, a Brussels-based nonprofit, which indicates that coal pollution causes more than 18,200 premature deaths each year in Europe – or 23,300 deaths, if you add in Serbia, Croatia and Turkey. The economic costs of burning coal totals between €42.8 and €54.7 billion annually (up to $71 billion in dollars), equaling about 4 million lost working days every year.
Here's what that looks like in graph form:
It's interesting to study the country-by-country breakdowns in HEAL's report, which the group says is the first to comprehensively examine the medical-economic impact of coal on the continent. Some of the worst polluters are power-generation facilities in former Eastern Bloc countries, like the imposing Maritsa Iztok lignite complex in Bulgaria and the quad-smokestacked Turcenia Power Station in Romania. More than half of the total health impacts that HEAL logged come from Romania, Poland and Germany, while runner-up countries with high levels of combustion include Bulgaria, Turkey, the Czech Republic, France and the United Kingdom.
Coal as a power source has been a decades-long wane in Europe, but HEAL sees the potential for a "short term rebound" in the fossil-fuel's popularity due to high prices for natural gas. Actually, it's already happening: Coal is gaining traction in part due to the actions of Germany, which ditched nuclear power in favor of coal in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. And there are 50 more coal power plants in development in Europe, some designed to burn lignite (aka "brown coal") that's cheap but especially foul for the environment.
Coal pollution has been linked to chronic diseases of the heart and lungs and can trigger nasty stuff like bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, heart attacks and arrhythmias. A boom in coal could increase the amount of ozone and particulate matter over European cities, where already between 80 and 90 percent of people are breathing air that's beyond dirty as defined by the World Health Organization.
HEAL is asking policymakers to consider putting a moratorium on new plants or use better pollution-scrubbing technology. At the very least, says the group's leader, Genon Jensen, the "startlingly high costs to human health should trigger a major rethink on EU energy policy." (Read the full report here or the short version here.)