Why We Need to Stop Burn­ing Coal Now

Trillions - - In This Issue -

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 coal­fired 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 coal­fired 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.

Lets be smart and stop killing our­selves and the planet with coal.

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