The coal industry has a dirty secret: it is killing people. This week Greenpeace Germany released a report, "Death from the stack", revealing that the country's coal-fired power plants caused an estimated 3,100 deaths in 2010 - almost as many as died in road accidents. Additionally, 700,000 working days are estimated to have been lost due to illnesses caused by the coal power emissions.
With the media attention on Beijing's toxic air, few people realize that air pollution is a massive health risk also in Europe, with toxic particles cutting an estimated nine months off the life span of the average European.
Smoke belching from polish coal power plant.
The power companies with worst modeled health impacts in Germany in 2010 are RWE, Vattenfall and E.ON, causing an estimated 1000, 900 and 400 deaths respectively, and that's not including the damages from climate change that their CO2 emissions cause. What kind of company can get away with a thousand deaths per year from its routine operations? The answer, even in Europe, unfortunately, is a coal power company.
Yet, coal-burning has increased dramatically in many EU countries from 2009 to 2012. Politicians are not only tolerating the impacts of power plants built long ago, but approving new power plants with impacts that would continue for several decades.
Dirty energy advocates have tried to pin the increase in coal-burning in Europe on the closures of nuclear reactors in Germany. However, this explanation does not stand up to scrutiny, for two reasons. First, fossil fuel fired generation as a whole has not increased: this is not about fossil fuels being substituted for nuclear generation. In fact, the amazing growth in renewable energy in Germany has already made up for most of the closure of eight large nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster already by end of 2012. The reason why coal is growing is that cleaner-burning natural gas is being burned less and coal is being burned more. Behind that shift is the failure of European governments to set strong targets for CO2 reductions – a failure caused largely by the same dirty energy lobby that has been busy blaming Germany's nuclear decision.
Second, coal-burning increased most in the UK and Spain, with no connection to the German power market. Actually, in 2012, coal-burning increased more in pro-nuclear France than in Germany. However, not a single news story has drawn attention to booming coal use in France.
Germany is better placed than most countries to ditch its dirty coal plants: power generation from renewable energy sources, excluding hydropower, grew 6-fold in just ten years. In 2012, renewable power covered 23% of domestic demand, up from 7% in 2001. The future looks even brighter: when the country's grid operator summed up the renewable energy development targets of the federal states, the results showed that green electricity could cover over 50% of demand in 2020, just eight years away. This would enable Germany to halve the use of coal in power generation while phasing out nuclear completely, by 2023.
With renewable energy booming, the German government has choices to make. 15 more dirty coal power plant projects are in the construction or planning stage in Germany. These projects were conceived in the previous decade, well before the nuclear phase-out decision and while renewable energies were still a relatively minor source of power. The new power plant projects would add 1,100 deaths. We will continue to push for ambitious CO2 emission reductions and green energy targets in Europe – not only for the sake of the global climate, but also to protect our health from toxic pollution.