The global impact of coal power

February 20, 2019, ETH Zurich
People in India, Asia and Eastern Europe suffer the worst health effects from the pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants. Credit: Christopher Oberschelp/ETH Zurich

Coal-fired power plants produce more than just carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. Coal burning also releases particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury—thus damaging the health of many people around the world. To estimate where action is most urgently required, the research group led by Stefanie Hellweg from ETH Zurich's Institute of Environmental Engineering modeled and calculated the undesired side effects of coal power for each of the 7,861 power plant units in the world.

Uneven pollution levels

The results, which were recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability, show that China and the U.S. are the two largest producers of power, but power plants in India take the highest toll in the world when it comes to health. Central Europe, North America and China all have modern power plants, but Eastern Europe, Russia and India still have many older power plants equipped with insufficient flue gas treatment.

As a result, these power plants only remove a fraction of the pollutants—while also often burning coal of inferior quality. "More than half of the health effects can be traced back to just one-tenth of the power plants. These power plants should be upgraded or shut down as quickly as possible," says Christopher Oberschelp, the lead author of the study.

A question of quality

The global picture of coal power production shows that the gap between privileged and disadvantaged regions is widening. This is happening for two reasons. Firstly, wealthy countries—such as in Europe—import high-quality coal with a high calorific value and low emissions of harmful . The poorer coal-exporting countries (such as Indonesia, Colombia and South Africa) are left with low-quality coal, which they often burn in outdated power plants without modern flue gas treatment to remove the sulphur dioxide.

Secondly, "In Europe, we contribute to with our own power plants, which has a global impact. However, the local health damage caused by , sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide occurs mainly in Asia, where coal power is used to manufacture a large proportion of our consumer products," says Oberschelp.

Coal power threatens to grow worldwide

Global coal resources will last for several hundred years, so the harmful emissions need to be limited politically. "It is particularly important to leave coal that is high in mercury and sulphur content in the ground," says Oberschelp. Reducing the negative health effects of coal power generation should be a global priority: "But further industrialisation, especially in China and India, poses the risk of aggravating the situation instead," write the researchers led by Hellweg in their article.

The initial investment costs for the construction of a coal power plant are high, but the subsequent operating costs are low. Power plant operators thus have an economic interest in keeping their plants running for a long time. "The best option is therefore to not build any new coal . From a health and environment perspective, we should move away from coal and towards natural gas—and in the long term, towards renewable energy sources," says Oberschelp.

Explore further: Trump to lift carbon-capture mandate for new coal plants, source says

More information: C. Oberschelp et al, Global emission hotspots of coal power generation, Nature Sustainability (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0221-6

Related Stories

Asia coal plants worrying for climate targets: IEA

October 31, 2018

Coal-fired power plants operating and under construction in Asia pose a threat to achieving the goal of halting global warming, the head of the International Energy Agency told the Financial Times on Wednesday.

Power plant plan further clouds coal's future

June 3, 2014

President Barack Obama's ambitious plan to reduce the gases blamed for global warming from the nation's power plants gives many coal-dependent states more lenient restrictions—and won't necessarily be the primary reason ...

European power plants boosting coal use

April 24, 2008

High oil and natural gas prices, coupled with increased demand, are driving Europe's return to coal-fired power plants, an industry official says.

Recommended for you

Machine learning identifies links between world's oceans

March 21, 2019

Oceanographers studying the physics of the global ocean have long found themselves facing a conundrum: Fluid dynamical balances can vary greatly from point to point, rendering it difficult to make global generalizations.

How fluid viscosity affects earthquake intensity

March 21, 2019

Fault zones play a key role in shaping the deformation of the Earth's crust. All of these zones contain fluids, which heavily influence how earthquakes propagate. In an article published today in Nature Communications, Chiara ...

7 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

zeevk
5 / 5 (3) Feb 20, 2019
wood, then peat then ligninte coal to higher quality coal than anthracite. this sustained man's arrival to the current advanced age of petroliquids and gasses.
we are making progress, but it is not realistic for the west to tell the other 5 billion not to catchup. Human beings like electrification by any source.

our best hope lies in SHARING FREELY intellectual property AND investing in the spread of technology that makes it cheaper for nations to get OFF coal. Apart from the Carrot , there is no other way beyond using the stick to punish nations for pursuing their best short term interests. They are not irrational, and those without affordable consistent electricity won't listen to mere pleadings to consider the long long term from nations preaching the benefits of artificial scarcity when they are already rich in electricity.
snoosebaum
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 20, 2019
fossil fuel was once life , release it and the earth will make it live again
RealityCheck
3.9 / 5 (8) Feb 20, 2019
@snoosebaum.
fossil fuel was once life , release it and the earth will make it live again
And killing you and future generations of humans in the process. Loser Russian/Fossil-lobby/GOP troll-factory meme-parroter. Go collect your thirty pieces of silver for the week, @snoose; you've earned it. Sadly.
howhot3
5 / 5 (1) Feb 20, 2019
The best way to sequester CO2 and fight global warming is to leave all fossil fuels in the ground. I realize it's pretty disturbing to the climate change deniers but that's the bottom line of what mankind needs to do. Can you think of any other options to reduce CO2 levels to levels that will not massively disturbed Earth's climate? No, you can't think of anything else I'm sure of it. Unfortunately, we need to do this immediately and within a hundred-year time frame where else the planet is doomed.
Da Schneib
3 / 5 (2) Feb 21, 2019
What's the big one over South Asia? It appears to be bigger than China. The US looks minuscule next to it.

Just askin'.
Da Schneib
3 / 5 (2) Feb 21, 2019
And OBTW Russia looks bigger than the US too.

So what's all this
China and the U.S. are the two largest producers of coal power
bullshit?
gzurbay
5 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2019
The Germans use petroleum coke ( pet coke ) ground micro fine to absorb mercury and other contaminants - many utilities don't use these types of emission controls - because it somewhat de-rates the output the power plant, - ( costing money )...... And they could care less of the downwind populace...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.