An early phase out of coal plants around the world could help avoid over 14.5 million premature deaths from air pollution over the next three decades, a new analysis published on Tuesday said, delivering an economic benefit of $16.3 trillion.
This equates to saving around 425 million years of life, or gaining an additional 20 days for each of today’s 7.9 billion global population.
The assessment, set out in a blog post and accompanying interactive webtool by researchers in Germany at NewClimate Institute, shows the enormous scale of public health benefits of urgently phasing out operating and planned coal plants in 24 countries, covering over 90 per cent of the global fleet.
The researchers show that existing coal plants around the world are contributing to more than 900 thousand premature deaths per year. One of the study’s authors, Harry Fearnehough, stresses the critical importance of the synergies between taking action to combat climate change and driving major improvements in health around the world.
“We’re all aware how damaging coal-fired generation is for the climate and that as a global community we need to rapidly wean ourselves off this dependence on coal to meet our energy needs. The tool we’re publishing today offers in numbers a global overview of the health benefits we can realise by delivering an urgent energy transition, showcasing impacts from the national level, right down to the detail of individual coal units.”
The study and online tool show how global adverse health impacts from coal-fired electricity generation are dominated by China.
China accounts for over half of the global coal fleet today. Operating coal plants in China alone are causing over 720,000 premature deaths per year and the researchers estimate that the operation of existing and planned coal plants in China could cause in the order of 21 million premature deaths over the coming three decades without measures to curtail their construction and use.
Other major coal powerhouses in Asia would also be responsible for significant premature loss of life if they continue to build and operate coal plants over the coming decades.
India has the world’s second largest coal fleet and a high population density, which typically means a more sizeable population is exposed to the local air pollutants from the plants.
Reena Skribbe, a co-author of the study, noted that it is not just India and China that need to take action to reduce their coal generation.
“Whilst China and India are clearly the biggest players, our research shows that there is still significant potential to prevent premature deaths in all of the 24 countries we have analysed and feature in the AIRPOLIM webtool. As a starting point, around 3.2 million premature deaths could be avoided across all the countries we cover, simply by stopping building any new coal plants today.”
The researchers invite others, including policy makers, as well as investors and civil society organisations to use the AIRPOLIM tool as a starting point to inform their decisions and ensure the critical health aco-benefit’ to decarbonising power sectors is used to mobilise action.