Why We Need to Stop Burning Coal Now

Those that are fighting to keep coal alive are in fact killing people and contaminating the entire planet.

In multiple studies, the facts are adding up in di­sastrous proportions. In China, the largest fos­sil-fuel polluter in the world, a study estimated that 366,000 people died premature deaths in 2013 from coal-plant-related emissions. In India, the country pro­ducing the third-highest level of fossil-fuel pollutants, an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people die early each year from coal-plant contributions. The United States, with the second-highest level of fossil-fuel emissions in the world, is killing around 52,000 people early an­nually because of coal-power-plant-related causes. In the European Union (EU), the effects of coal pollu­tion are killing 23,000 people per year. And in South­east Asia, which, unlike most other areas, is seeing a coal-power-industry boom as economic success is causing a demand for more power, the number is about 20,000 people per year. Worldwide, with these and all other countries added up, the numbers total 2.9 million people dying early per year, according to one 2013 global study.

That does not even begin to count those that still live but whose lives are permanently crippled from coal-related pollution. One study estimates that in In­dia alone there are 20 million new asthma cases per year because of coal dust in the air and other chemi­cals released by the power plants. In the EU, another 2013 study claimed there were over 500,000 asthma attacks in children and 12,000 cases of chronic bron­chitis just in that one year.

For those countries watching their balance sheets and claiming they cannot afford to switch away from coal, that is also turning out to be dead wrong – with an emphasis on the word “dead.” Hospitals in India are spending $3.3 billion to $4.6 billion every year to handle cases directly related to coal pollution. In the EU, the number is $36 billion to $70 billion per year (or 32.4 billion to 62.3 billion euros at then-current ex­change rates).

In case you are wondering, these statistics have been gathered from different studies carried out by respect­ed scientific institutions.

In each case, the raw cause of the deaths was as clear as the presence of the coal pollution hanging in the air. It was all about what made it outside of the smoke­stacks after the feeble attempts at carbon capture, in­ternal pollutant capture and air scrubbing had done their little bits to help.

A major part of the problem is the fine-particulate pollution itself, with airborne particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter (about 1/20th the diameter of a human hair), particles so tiny that they can easily pass deep into the lungs and cause massive destruc­tion there. That particulate pollution is considered to be responsible for about 83% of the causes of damage in the EU-reported coal deaths and coal-related health problems for the living.

A second part of the problem is the bonus of toxic chemicals that also comes with the particulates. In the India analysis cited above, conducted by a former World Bank head of pollution analysis, for example, in addition to the carbon dioxide (CO2) being dumped out, the pollution is also thick with substantial amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury, just to name some of the bigger culprits.

The CO2 is notable because as a greenhouse gas it is a major contributor to global warming worldwide.

Nitrogen oxides have the added impact that they react with other organic compounds to form smog, a form of ozone that hangs close to the ground. Besides be­ing a major contributing factor to the rapid increase in asthma cases worldwide, these materials also cause premature death in human beings and damage plants, which in turn makes them more likely to cause dam­age in the event of some of the extreme weather that is a major by-product of global warming.

Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide also help create so-called acid rain. This is indeed actual acid: When water, oxygen and other chemicals are mixed together with them in the atmosphere, sulfuric acid is created. That acid kills plants, damages tree leaves and leach­es nutrients out of the ground soils.

Mercury is also a major by-product of coal-fired power plants, with those plants in fact being the largest sin­gle contributor of mercury pollution worldwide.

There is not a single significant waterway in the United States that is not contaminated with mercury from coal-fired power plants.

Mercury on its own is a deadly neurotoxin. When mer­cury was used in the past to cure felt hats, those that once crafted those hats by hand developed a serious neurological disorder characterized by dementia and nervous tics known at the time as “Hatter’s Dance.” That is where the character name of the Mad Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was derived.

As mercury pollution in the atmosphere is washed down into the rest of the environment, it begins by damaging food algae, one of the first parts of the glob­al food chain. As each succeeding part of the food chain eats the mercury-contaminated algae or the creature that ate it (such as minnows, then larger fish, then birds, animals and human beings), the mercury gets further concentrated and creates further dam­age. Mercury is also extremely difficult to eradicate from the environment once it enters it.

Part of why the problem is so bad is the pure demands on power – especially in China, India and Southeast Asia, where the economies are hot and the drive to power them with whatever is available is even hotter.

China’s history in this matter has been well docu­mented, with pollution so bad that plants had to be shut down to allow the air to clear for a few days be­fore some of the outdoor events in the 2008 Summer Olympics could take place. China generates 69% of its energy from coal-fired plants.

The second-largest coal user in the world is India, with most of its current 210 GW of annual electricity output coming from coal. India is also projecting a need for another 160 GW soon, subject to approvals.

In the countries in Southeast Asia, the drive for eco­nomic power is also creating a concurrent drive for electrical power. By 2035 alone, the demands for power in the region are estimated to have increased by 83%, compared to 2011 statistics. In that region, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar are expected to see major impacts from coal-fired-plant building and emissions, much of which will come from new plants. Indonesia on its own is planning to build 176 new coal-fired power plants by 2030. When all of that comes to pass, the current 20,000 per year coal-plant-pollution premature kill rate is expected to rise to 70,000.

It is also not just the emerging economies in Asia that are contributing to all of this. In Korea and Japan, there is also a major boom in the construction and use of new coal power plants. The result of their use, once they are online, will be an increase in coal-related emissions in those countries by a factor of three by the same 2030 date.

Another problem in keeping coal-plant pollution in check is the lack of toughness about emissions stan­dards. For example, although India does have some good standards in place, rarely is much done about them. In that country, airborne pollutants increased by 13% between 2010 and 2015 at the same time as those in China, the United States and Europe dropped by 15% through a combination of moves to renewable energy and far more rigid enforcement.

There are ways that India could be addressing this now, if it would just step up regulation enforcement and put in place some measures already available to cut emissions in the existing plants. As that India re­port referenced earlier in this article said, “Hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved, and millions of asthma attacks, heart attacks, hospitalizations, lost workdays and associated costs could be avoided, with the use of cleaner fuels … stricter emissions stan­dards and the installation and use of the technologies required to achieve substantial reductions in these pollutants.” Little of that seems likely for the moment without a real sea change in national attitudes and government involvement in the matter. As the report adds, “There is a conspicuous lack of regulations for power plant stack emissions. Enforcement of what standards do exist is nearly non-existent.”

It is no wonder that India has the unique distinction of having the highest number of cities of any country in the list of the top 10 most polluted cities in the world. Further, as noted in a January 2017 study by Green­peace, “There are virtually no places in India comply­ing with World Health Organization and national ambi­ent air quality (NAAQ) standards, and most cities are critically polluted.” Most of that pollution comes from coal-fired plants.

A third issue affecting the rise in coal pollution is, in many countries at least, the lack of any real backing for renewable energy sources as a path to saving the future – even if in the short term it might require sub­sidies and government insistence on solar and wind alternatives (mostly) to pave a cleaner way for the fu­ture.

The situation varies from country to country, of course. What is happening in the Philippines may be a telling example, however. With the 2016 election of President Duterte, two things there were particularly of interest on an international scale. The first was the much-re­ported draconian approach to the war on drugs, which some felt was much needed but at this point is seen by many more as having extended beyond control. The second was the appointment of Gina Lopez, a pro-re­newable-energy leader, as the head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Lopez had come to her position with supposed strong backing from the newly elected president. She also came with a very anti-mining stance, something also backed by the de facto alternate-power group, the Phil­ippine Catholic Church. She went after putting in place orders to close mines around the country that were in violation of mining regulations. That put not just the mines in jeopardy but also the coal plants they were fueling in jeopardy as well. Her response was to at­tempt to set up specific strategies, including target­ed subsidies, tax breaks and other considerations, to move the Philippines rapidly into a pro-renewables stance. In May 2017, however, less than a year after taking charge, she was removed from her position and most of her work to move away from coal, even includ­ing the mining regulation enforcements themselves, was pulled back. The pro-coal organizations were just too powerful for her to stand up against without Dute­rte himself stepping in to stop them – which he point­edly did not do when the time came for that.

This is part of why companies like Danish wind tur­bine maker Vestas, a giant in the industry, say that “wind development has come to a near halt [in the Philippines] while conventional fuel generation con­tinues to grow significantly.” Vestas’ own study con­cludes that 75% of all committed electrical capacity will come from fossil fuels in the Philippines, with 74% of that total from coal and another 12% from natural gas. Yet, despite the country having some of the most abundant wind resources in all of Southeast Asia, the Philippines’ Department of Energy’s list of committed projects makes it clear that the majority of future proj­ects in the country will be fossil-fuel based. Out of a plan for over 5.3 GW of new energy capacity planned for the country, only 671 MW (about 13%) is planned to come from renewable-energy sources including geothermal, hydro, biomass, wind and solar.

This story is echoed to varying degrees through­out many of the developing countries in the world. All of them use the excuse that although they know coal-powered energy is dangerous, they must have the power and “cheap coal” is the only solution for them that can work economically. Unfortunately, that economic calculation is hopelessly short-sighted and does not consider the total human costs involved.

In the United States, the problem is made even worse by the greed of the existing fossil-fuel industry and the total lack of either scientifically or appropriately eco­nomically driven leadership anywhere in the govern­ment, including the White House, the Cabinet and the U.S. Congress. The current life-threatening as well as completely unnecessary rollbacks in fossil-fuel-emis­sions standards in a variety of industries are just one part of the problem. These, combined with a lem­ming-like drive to support life-threatening coal-pow­er production in every part of its value chain – from dangerous mining to highly toxic coal-burning power plants – will continue to kill more and more Americans every day for the foreseeable future.

All of this will only be halted with a lot of will at the government levels, unfortunately along with a very high body count piling up on those governments’ door­steps before coal power is eradicated from the scene. Unfortunately, as urban pollution becomes the num­ber one source of pollution in the world and peaks by around 2050 (according to some current projections), that number could eventually reach as high as 3.6 mil­lion people a year dying early because of coal power plants.

Solar and wind power are now cheaper than coal or natural gas and the green energy industry employs far more people than the fossil fuel industry does.

Let’s be smart and stop killing ourselves and the plan­et with coal.