bneGREEN: Is coal killing us all?

bneGREEN: Is coal killing us all?
Avoided climate deaths from an early coal phase-out / New Climate Institute
By Richard Lockhart in Edinburgh May 27, 2022

Ending coal-fired power generation could prevent 14.5mn premature death from air pollution between now and 2050 and would create up to $16.3 trillion in economic benefits.

New analysis from the German-based New Climate Institute found that ending coal generation is a major public health issue, and that using coal to make electricity was producing 10.5bn tonnes per year (tpy) of CO2 and causing 900,000 premature deaths per year.

This output of CO2 is a major contributor to the global temperature rise, and the report from New Climate Institute pointed out that all scenarios compatible with meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C temperature limit require a rapid decline in coal use.

Reducing coal use also provides a golden opportunity to improve air quality and reduce pollution at the same time.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that global unabated coal use in the energy sector must fall by 55% by 2030 and be phased out entirely by 2040.

Similarly, ending new oil, gas and coal developments is not enough to achieve net zero by 2050, according to new research from the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Instead, already built fossil fuel projects must be decommissioned early if climate change is to be limited to 1.5°C.

In November 2021, governments from across the globe committed to “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power” at COP26 in Glasgow.

The research used the New Climate Institute’s AIRPOLIM webtool, which draws on the Global Coal Plant Tracker data provided by Global Energy Monitor.

The tool used the coal use and emissions data to map the impact of 2,000 GW of coal plants that are operating, representing 90% of the global fleet, as well as another 400 GW still in the planning pipeline.

Poor air quality is a major contributor to health complications around the world, accounting for more than 1 in 9 deaths, or around 6.7mn fatalities in 2019.

Coal-fired power plants contribute to this problem by releasing pollutants such as primary particulate matter, for example PM2.5, as well as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which produce secondary particulate matter.

These micro-particles can cross the lung barrier and enter the blood system, negatively affecting the cardiovascular system and also directly causing respiratory illnesses.

The new climate institute’s report estimated the fatalities amongst populations exposed to increased concentrations of air pollutants from coal plants caused by four adulthood diseases: heart disease (caused by a narrowing of the arteries); stroke; lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.


China and Asia

The report said that China dominated global adverse health impacts from coal-fired electricity generation. The country accounts for over half of the global coal fleet today, and coal plants in China cause over 720,000 premature deaths per year.

The operation of existing and planned coal plants in China could cause up to 21mn premature deaths over the coming three decades without measures to curtail their construction and use.

Despite signing up to the Glasgow Climate Pact at COP26 in 2021, China continues to channel significant investment into boosting its domestic coal industry, with the China Electricity Council (CEC) forecasting installation of a further 180 GW (approximately 10% of currently operating capacity) of coal-fired power before 2030.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may drive it to further boost domestic reliance on coal.

Outside China, other Asian states such as India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan account for most of the remaining share of projected premature deaths from coal power around the world.

If steps are not taken to limit the use of existing coal plants and prevent the construction of new ones, coal plants in Asia (outside China) could potentially contribute to a further 7mn premature deaths between now and 2050.

An early phase-out of coal, in line with phase-out dates that are based on regional pathways considered by the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, could contribute to avoiding 14.4mn premature deaths, or saving 423mn years of life from plants in Asia alone, by 2050.

In the report’s Early Phase-out scenario analysis, OECD countries phase out coal generation completely by 2031, with non-OECD Asian countries removing coal from the power mix by 2037.

Implementing a phase-out even earlier than these timeframes would further boost the potential health benefits.

Weaning off existing coal plants is the key challenge, but simply stopping any new construction can still avoid millions of premature deaths

Existing coal plants, if allowed to run until the end of their lifetime, account for just over 80% of projected premature deaths over the period to 2050, with plants under construction making up a further 7% of the potential total.

However, around 3.2mn premature deaths (11% of the total) could be avoided simply by stopping building any new coal plants.

Avoiding construction of any new coal-fired plants and implementing a rapid phase-out of all operational units is critical to limiting global temperature rise and avoiding catastrophic socioeconomic impacts.

Bringing about an urgent end to dependence on coal to meet electricity needs could help prevent vast numbers of deaths in the coming decades. And whilst transformation of existing energy sectors and the huge scale-up of low-carbon technologies presents their challenges, the technologies and know-how exists to deliver a rapid coal phase-out.