Weak EU coal pollution standards carry high costs

Draft new EU emission limits for coal-fired power stations are so weak that they could result in health damage, including the loss of over 23 million working days, which would cost over €52 billion between 2020 and 2029.

A new study by environmental economist Mike Holland, commissioned by environmental groups European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and Greenpeace, shows that the EU’s draft new power plant pollution regulation could lead to 71,000 avoidable deaths in the decade after 2020 because the currently proposed standards do not require application of the readily available, most effective emission abatement techniques.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of sulphur dioxide (SO₂) and mercury emissions in Europe and one of the largest industrial sources of emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), arsenic, lead and cadmium. Emissions of SO₂, NOx, and dust particles from coal plant smokestacks are key contributors to increased concentrations of particulate matter (PM2.5), a pollutant that has been found to increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and lung cancer.

The EU is currently in the process of updating its emission standards for large combustion plants, including lignite- and coal-fired power plants. The standards are published in “best available techniques reference documents” (BREF) (see Box) and are – as indicated by the name – meant to be based on the best available techniques (BAT), but the current EU proposal is far weaker than standards at existing coal plants in China, Japan and the United States (see AN 2/15, p. 16–17).

The new EU standards would apply from 2020–2029 and set emission limit values for toxic air emissions, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and dust particles – pollutants that all have significant documented effects on health and the environment.
“EU decision-makers should not bring ‘state-of-the-art’ environmental standards down to the levels of industry laggards or base them on least-cost options,” said Christian Schaible, EEB policy manager on industrial pollution.

Official EU data has been used in the study to model the health impacts of the proposed new EU emission standards, comparing them to the impacts of standards based on BAT. The numbers for deaths, illnesses and costs express the difference between application of the two standards.
It is estimated that the health damage from the excess pollution that could result from the weak standards would cost over €52 billion over 20202029 (see table). It should be noted that this figure is based on the most conservative estimate of the health benefits, and that it would increase by roughly a factor three if the upper bound for economic impacts were used instead.

Greenpeace EU energy policy adviser Tara Connolly said: “The human, environmental and economic cost of a sell-out to the coal industry is huge. Children will pay the heaviest price, with hundreds of thousands of avoidable cases of asthma, lung cancer and heart conditions. There is no justification for politicians who refuse to apply existing technology that can bring down deadly coal pollution. Coal causes irreparable damage and it’s high time for the EU to set a pathway to start phasing it out.”

Christer Ågren
The report: “Health and economic implications of alternative emission limits for coal-fired power plants in the EU” (May 2015).

Health impact Unit  Difference
Mortality (30+ yr Deaths 71,200
Acute bronchitis (27+ yr) Cases 204,500
Chronic Bronchitis (27+ yr) Cases 60,600
Respiratory hospital admission (all ages) Admissions 29,000
Cardiac hospital admissions (18+ yr) Admissions 28,800
Asthma symptom days (children 5-19 yr) Days 2,160,200
Restricted activity days (all ages) Days 83,484,800
Lost working days (15-64 yr) Days 23,222,700
IQ loss from mercury IQ points 29,600
Overall costs billion € 52.45


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