Silent Killers

Why Europe must replace coal power with green energy

Publication - June 11, 2013
32,000 life years would be robbed every year if the coal-fired power plants currently under construction or in planning go into operation. This loss of life is entirely unnecessary, as renewable energy and the latest cutting-edge energy-efficient solutions enable us to keep Europe's lights on.

Updated on 24 June 2013

Coal-fired power plants are among the worst sources of toxic air pollutants in the EU and globally. Acid gas, soot, and dust emissions from coal are the biggest industrial contributors to microscopic particulate pollution that penetrates deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream. The pollution harms the health of babies, children and adults, causing heart attacks and lung cancer, as well as increasing asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. Tens of thousands of kilograms of toxic metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium are spewed out of the stacks, contributing to cancer risk and harming children’s development. Despite these health risks, European governments have failed to steer clear of the dirty old-fashioned energy source, with coal burning increasing in Europe each year from 2009 to 2012, and with more than 50 new dirty power plants in development.

To shed light on the health impacts of coal-burning power plants in Europe, a report was commissioned from the Stuttgart University. The report, which is the basis for this Greenpeace International publication, investigates the health impacts of each of the 300 operating large power plants in the EU, as well as the predicted impact of the 50 new projects if they come online. Using a sophisticated health impact assessment model, the report estimates that pollution from coal-fired power plants in the EU resulted in thousands of premature deaths, shortening the lives of Europeans by an estimated total of 240,000 lost life years in 2010. In countries with heavy coal use, the results indicate that more people are killed by coal than in traffic accidents.

This pollution crosses borders and affects everyone in Europe, even in those countries with little or no domestic coal burning. As such, all EU countries have an interest to act to stem these emissions. According to the modelling results, another 32,000 life years would be robbed every year if the power plants currently under construction or in planning go into operation – a total of 1.3 million lost life years if the power plants operate for a full lifetime of 40 years.

This loss of life is entirely unnecessary, as renewable energy and the latest cutting-edge energy-efficiency solutions enable us to keep Europe’s lights on without a single new coal-fired power plant, and to start phasing out all existing coal in Europe’s power generation. Coal burning also needs to be reduced rapidly, to stem the catastrophic impacts of climate change. In order to achieve this, European governments need to set targets for green energy that ensure coal can be phased out.

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