Environment

Health costs of coal plants prompt policy rethink

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March 18, 2016

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Published:

March 18, 2016

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A study quantified public health costs of polluted air from coal-fired power plants in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo* at up to EUR 8.56 billion per year.

The calculation is made up of costs including from premature deaths, respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, new cases of chronic bronchitis and lower respiratory problems, medication use and days of restricted activity due to ill-health, including lost working days. The study was presented in Sarajevo.

Not all the health costs are borne by residents of the countries or even the region. Of the total, only EUR 3.5 billion of the damages fall on the population in countries of the Western Balkan region, according to the authors. About EUR 5 billion in health damages falls on European Union member states plus Albania, Belarus, Moldova, Norway, Switzerland, Ukraine and the western regions of Russia, the study found.

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) said the Western Balkans is home to seven out of the 10 most polluting facilities of the kind in Europe and that the European Union should encourage a move away from coal to improve health and tackle climate change. Two more facilities in the group are in Greece in Bulgaria, while the remaining one is located in Poland.

The estimated health costs of future coal plants are included in the study, called ‘The Unpaid Health Bill – How coal power plants in the Western Balkans make us sick’. Albania was excluded as there are no coal power plants there. Currently home to 15 existing coal plants with an installed capacity of 8.1 gigawatt (GW), the region could see the installation of 24 new projects with 7.8 GW capacity.

With health costs of up to 3.1 EUR billion per year, existing coal plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina contribute about one third to the total health costs. The country has three such facilities in the list of the most polluting ten in the continent. Ugljevik is the most polluting in Europe for emissions from sulphur dioxide followed by the Kakanj and Tuzla plants. Figures from the World Health Organization show the economic cost of early deaths from air pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina at 21.5% of gross domestic product compared with 4.5% in Germany. The tally for Macedonia is 19.9% and for Montenegro it is 14.5%.

The cost of early deaths from air pollution in Serbia is at 33.5% of the economy. The country is responsible for almost half of the public health costs from polluted air from existing coal-fired power plants in the region, the report said. Four of the biggest emitters of sulphur dioxide in Europe are located in Serbia. Its energy minister Aleksandar Antić disputes the findings, saying EUR 200 million was invested in the last several years in 13 electrostatic precipitators, which filter particulate matter almost completely. “Because of these, but also other projects, we are graded by the European Commission, by the level of pollution from thermal power plants, under the European average and we are better even than Germany and Poland,” he told Blic daily’s portal.

Air pollutants in countries of the Western Balkans are at levels that are up to two and a half times above national air quality safety limits and well beyond what the World Health Organization recommends. The combination of coal and other exhaust from industrial, transport and domestic sources in the air robs the countries of health and prosperity.

“The European Union should encourage the change to a healthy energy future by significantly increasing financial support for renewables and energy savings – for example, under the pre-accession programme. It would improve air quality and help tackle climate change in both the Western Balkans and in the rest of Europe,” said Anne Stauffer, HEAL’s deputy director. EU policymakers should put their weight behind pushing for strong air quality and pollution control measures in Western Balkan neighbours, the organization said.

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244/99 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

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