In a groundbreaking article to be released this month in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, details the economic, health and environmental costs associated with each stage in the life cycle of coal – extraction, transportation, processing, and combustion. These costs, between a third to over half a trillion dollars annually, are directly passed on to the public.
A full copy of the report is available upon request.
In terms of human health, the report estimates $74.6 billion a year in public health burdens in Appalachian communities, with a majority of the impact resulting from increased healthcare costs, injury and death. Emissions of air pollutants account for $187.5 billion, mercury impacts as high as $29.3 billion, and climate contributions from combustion between $61.7 and $205.8 billion. Heavy metal toxins and carcinogens released during processing pollute water and food sources and are linked to long-term health problems. Mining, transportation, and combustion of coal contribute to poor air quality and respiratory disease, while the risky nature of mining coal results in death and injury for workers.
In comparison, other sums related to economic and environmental damage include between $2.2 and $10 billion in impacts from land disturbances and $8.8 billion in related costs due to abandoned mine lands. Qualitative impacts include environmental damages and clean-up costs from toxic spills, declines in property values, timber resources, crop damage (due to water contamination), and loss of tourism.
“The public is unfairly paying for the impacts of coal use,” says Dr. Epstein. “Accounting for these ‘hidden costs’ doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh, making wind, solar, and other renewable very economically competitive. Policymakers need to evaluate current energy options with these types of impacts in mind. Our reliance on fossil fuels is proving costly for society, negatively impacting our wallets and our quality of life.”
Coal has produced approximately half of the nation’s electricity since 1995, and is currently the predominant fuel for electricity generation worldwide. With a projected increase in world energy demand, the demand for coal is expected to grow. To date, monetized information from the full life cycle has not been readily available.
The report was funded by the Rockefeller Family Foundation with additional programmatic support from the Energy Foundation.
The Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School was founded in 1996 at Harvard Medical School to expand environmental education at medical schools and to further investigate and promote awareness of the human health consequences of global environmental change. The mission of the Center is to help people understand that our health, and that of our children, depends on the health of the environment, and that we must do everything we can to protect
Molly Dorozenski, Greenpeace