Health group urges UK government to cut killer coal plants


The British Government is being urged to take action in Parliament tomorrow to accelerate the closure of coal-fired power plants that are responsible for 1,600 premature deaths each year in the UK. Health experts from the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) have warned that pollution from burning coal contributes to respiratory and circulatory illnesses hundreds of miles away from smokestacks, resulting in premature deaths, 363,266 lost working days and a medical cost burden of £1.1 to 3.1 billion every year. The opposition Labour party have joined health and environmental groups in calling on the government to protect public health and reduce the national medical bill by voting to cull ageing coal plants. The government is also under pressure from MP’s to reduce subsidies for dirty fossil fuel projects that drive dangerous climate change, which itself is a public health risk. HEAL explain that the summer heatwave of 2003, which can be seen as a foretaste of climatic changes in Europe, led to 2,045 excess deaths in England and Wales within two weeks alone. By seizing upcoming opportunities to shift its support away from dirty energy towards energy efficiency and renewables, the UK government could unlock the health co-benefits of cutting pollution and tackling climate change.


MT @HealthandEnv Will @UKParliament take action to reduce 1,600 premature deaths from British coal plants tomorrow?


Key Points

  • Health experts urge the British government to quickly phase out coal plants that are responsible for 1,600 premature deaths and 363,266 sick days every year. Medical professionals from the Health and Environment Alliance have revealed that pollutants from coal-fired power plants in the UK significantly degrade air quality, driving up the number of sufferers of serious illnesses like chronic bronchitis, heart attacks and lung cancer. Pollutants from coal plants can travel hundreds of miles in the air and hit the youngest and oldest members of society the hardest.
  • HEAL say that the co-benefits of cutting coal pollution – improved public health, smaller medical bills, fewer sick days, less climate change – should be given more prominence when decisions over energy sources are being made. The financial burden of combating coal-related health issues is estimated at up to £3.1 billion for the UK and up to £38.6 billion for the EU. One of the UK’s largest coal plants, Drax, is responsible for annual health costs of up to £1 billion alone. Health experts conclude that the cost of reducing climate pollutants by reducing coal plants would be paid back in part as health bills plummet.
  • The UK government is under pressure from the opposition Labour party, health experts and environmental groups to support the swift cull of coal plants in an important vote tomorrow. By supporting a proposed amendment to the UK Energy Bill to close some of the Britain’s dirtiest power plants earlier than planned, the government could “cash in huge health co-benefits” according to HEAL’s Executive Director Genon Jensen. MPs this week also called on the government to cut the £12 billion spent to subsidise dirty energy projects, like coal plants.


Tomorrow, MPs will vote on a Lords amendment to the Energy Bill, which would see old coal-fired power plants shut more quickly than expected, closing a legal loophole which would allow them to get around applying a new emissions performance standard (EPS). The EPS sets a maximum level of carbon that a plant can produce and currently will only apply to new stations. Most of the dirtiest coal stations are expected to close anyway, under laws to cut pollution. But with the Energy Bill as it currently stands those that upgrade to meet pollution standards could stay open and avoid regulations on cutting carbon emissions.

The amendment – led by a coalition of Liberal Democrat and Labour peers – would force these power stations to apply the EPS. It is likely to make operating coal stations uneconomic unless they fit carbon capture and storage technology, which is still yet to be used at scale. Setting such standards will be vital to hasten the clean up of plants that are both big polluters and major contributors to climate change. The House of Lords voted for the amendment 237 to 193 and it will tomorrow be considered by the House of Commons. There is still a possibility it could be overturned.

In the UK, coal-fired power plants generate almost 30% of the country’s electricity. The consumption of coal has been increasingly slightly since 2010 after years of decline, due to decreasing world market prices. Ahead of tomorrow’s vote, MPs are being urged to vote in the favour of the amendment and place tougher controls on the UK’s big emitting power stations. To coincide with the vote, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) released new figures on the health impacts of air pollution from coal-fired power plants. HEAL’s report shows that British coal power plants cause 1,600 premature deaths, 68,000 additional days of medication and 363,266 working days lost each year. It also causes more than a million incidents of lower respiratory symptoms. In total, coal power costs the UK an estimated £1.1 to £3.1 billion per year – ranking it sixth in Europe – according to HEAL.

Medical experts have long warned that the coal industry is taking a massive toll on public health around the world – associated with increased premature deaths, chronic respiratory and heart conditions and lung cancer – and you don’t have to be living under a smokestack to be harmed. Coal plants emit chemicals such as nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and tiny airborne particles, which can travel huge distances and can be harmful to humans. The latest figures from HEAL follow on from a Europe wide report earlier in the year which showed coal power stations are responsible for around 18,200 premature deaths and over 4 million lost working days each year across the continent – costing between £13.9 and £38.6 billion annually.

The briefing also highlights the contribution of coal to EU carbon emissions – accounting for around 20% – and the urgent need to tackle climate change from a health perspective. Impacts associated with climate change are estimated to already be causing 400,000 deaths each year worldwide. For example, the summer heatwave of 2003 – which can be viewed as a foretaste of climatic changes in Europe – led to in excess of 20,000 deaths across the continent and 2,045 deaths in England and Wales in just two weeks.

The latest figures highlighting the true costs of coal power further emphasise the absurdity of the government’s continued support for dirty fossil fuels. In a report earlier this week, MPs urged the government to reduce the UK’s £12 billion of subsidies handed to the dirty energy industry, rather than scale back green levies to support low carbon policies. The Environmental Audit Committee warned that MPs must be more honest about the levels of subsidies given to the energy industries – much of which go towards dirty energy sources such as oil and gas – and provide transparency on how they calculate them. It also called on ministers to prioritise curbing energy waste and ending fuel poverty and introduce a target to cut subsidies to dirty energy because of their impact on global warming.

The report said the chancellor’s autumn statement – to be read in Parliament on Thursday – provides an ideal chance for the government to provide a “clear and comprehensive analysis” of the country’s energy subsidies. The statement is expected to clarify measures taken by the government to lower energy bills, which include putting one of the ‘green levies’ currently on energy bills into general taxation and allowing energy companies to take longer to fulfil other energy efficiency duties. The government’s lead advisers on energy efficiency and fuel poverty have both warned that such changes will result as nothing more than “sticking plasters” and a “watering down” of the only measures which would permanently keep energy bills down, while also tackling fuel poverty. Green policies account for around 9% of average bills. The measures announced in the autumn statement are expected to bring energy bills down by £50, but MPs have warned that short term bids to cut bills must not throw energy and climate policy off course, and that the government must stand by its commitment to tackle fuel poverty and meet its climate change commitments.




Tools and Resources 

Related Alerts

Key Quotes

  • “Rapidly growing evidence of how coal affects air pollution and our health is pushing this issue on to centre stage in the energy debate. Our report has had a great response from energy ministers and health professionals who are increasingly aware that coal is costly for public health. The time is now ripe to bring the health facts and figures into national debates and cost assessments. Wednesday’s vote offers a unique opportunity.” – Genon Jensen, executive director of the Health and Environment Alliance
  • “The scientific evidence that air pollution causes disease is no longer in doubt. Ambient air pollution is recognised as a leading determinant of health globally and in Western Europe – and coal combustion is an important source of this pollution. Energy policy must seriously consider the significant health costs resulting from the use of coal.” – Dr Michal Krzyzanowski, visiting professor at King’s College London and formerly with the European Centre for Environment & Health (ECEH) of the World Health Organization 
  • “The external costs to health from coal power generation are among the largest of any form of electricity production, and reflect a substantial current public health burden. The costs of reducing greenhouse gases by reducing coal powered generation would be partially paid back because of lower health costs.” – Professor Paul Wilkinson, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM)
  • “Coal creates a double health burden. The air pollution it produces is harming people’s health directly – particularly children and patients with pre-existing lung problems, like asthma.  But it is also storing up health problems for the future, especially for today’s younger generation, because coal contributes substantially to carbon emissions and we know that climate change threatens health. I think renewable energy is a much better option all round.” – Isobel Braithwaite, Coordinator Healthy Planet UK

More Tweets