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(Coal fired power plants in India have repeatedly missed the emission deadline set by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change)

For the first time, Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) have quantified the global cost of air pollution from fossil fuels, finding that it has reached an estimated US$8 billion per day, or 3.3% of the world’s GDP. While coal, oil and vehicle companies continue to push outdated technologies, public health and our communities are paying the price.

It is found that the China Mainland, the United States and India bear the highest costs from fossil fuel air pollution worldwide, at an estimated US$900 billion, US$600 billion and US$150 billion per year, respectively.

Report is an astonishing revelation that exposure to fossil fuel generated fine particulate matter (PM2.5) alone is attributed to an estimated 1.8 billion days of sick leave annually.

This report, ‘Toxic air: The price of fossil fuels’, assesses the impacts on global health and the economic cost of air pollution from the continued burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Using data published in 2019 – including the first study to assess the contribution of fossil fuels to global air pollution and health – the report provides a global assessment of the health impact of air pollution from fossil fuels in 2018 and a first-of-its-kind estimate of the associated economic cost.

Air Pollution from burning fossil fuels

Historically, energy from fossil fuels has dominated power generation (Figure. 2), but as the cost of establishing and maintaining renewable sources of power (such as wind and solar) continues to fall, These options are now frequently less expensive than the fossil fuel alternative.

Global active power plant capacity

[Data: Toxic Air: The Price of Fossil Fuel Report]

 Research by the International Renewable Energy Agency published in 2018 took into account the lifetime cost of electricity in its calculations of cost comparisons to generate power from renewable sources versus fossil fuels. Although in most parts of the world newly commissioned power plants that use renewable sources, such as wind and solar, will be cheaper or at a similar cost than from fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas18, companies continue to push outdated technologies with the outcome that fossil fuels continue to dominate, creating air pollution when cleaner alternatives are readily available.

Evidence from public health studies suggests that exposure to an air pollutant or combination of air pollutants, such as PM2.5, NO2 or ozone, is associated with increased incidence of diseases including ischaemic heart disease (IHD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, lower respiratory infections, premature birth (preterm birth), type II diabetes, stroke and asthma. Health impacts from air pollution generate economic costs from the cost of treatment, management of health conditions, and from work absences.

Commenting on the report Minwoo Son, Clean Air Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia said, “Air pollution is a threat to our health and our economies. Every year, air pollution from fossil fuels takes millions of lives, increases our risk of stroke, lung cancer and asthma, and costs us trillions of dollars. But this is a problem that we know how to solve, by transitioning to renewable energy sources, phasing out diesel and petrol cars, and building public transport. We need to take into account the real cost of fossil fuels, not just for our rapidly heating planet, but also for our health.”

The properties and effects of air pollution vary from country to country; different locations are affected by different pollutants, pollution sources and environmental conditions. Combined with differences in population and lifestyle, the health impacts from air pollution change significantly depending on the geographical location. For example, a computer modelling study looked at seven different sources of PM2.5 and ozone air pollution: industry; land traffic; residential and commercial energy; biomass burning; power generation; agriculture; and natural. Using the model, the researchers calculated premature mortality resulting from air pollution generated by each of the seven sectors. Of premature deaths attributed to air pollution globally in 2010, almost one-third were attributable to exposure (while outdoors) to air pollution from residential and commercial energy, which was the principal source of air pollution-related premature deaths in India and China Mainland. Globally, land traffic was attributable for 5% of air pollution-related premature deaths and power generation for 14%.

The Indian Case

According to the report, India is estimated to bear 10.7 lakh crore (US$150 billion), or 5.4% of India’s GDP annually, the third highest costs from fossil fuel air pollution worldwide.

The analysis also suggests that an estimated one million deaths each year and approximately 980,000 estimated preterm births, equating to an annual economic loss of 10.7 lakh crore (US$150 billion) is attributed to air pollution from fossil fuel in India. Another source of economic costs is that approximately 350,000 new cases of child asthma each year are linked to NO2, a by-product of fossil fuel combustion. As a result, around 1,285,000 more children in India live with asthma linked to fossil fuel pollution. Exposure to pollution from fossil fuels also leads to around 49 crore days of work absence due to illness.

“The country spends around 1.28% of the GDP on health while air pollution from burning fossil fuels costs an estimated 5.4% of India’s GDP. This year the central government allocated only Rs 69,000 crore for the health sector in the union budget. This makes it clear that as a country we must fix our priority and stop burning fossil fuels which are harming our health and economy both,” said Avinash Chanchal, Senior Campaigner at Greenpeace India.

It must be noted that coal fired power plants in India have repeatedly missed the emission deadline set by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. In 2015, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) legislated new standards to restrict and reduce hazardous emissions from coal-fired power plants giving them two years timeline till 7th December 2017. MoP (Ministry of Power) and APP (Association of Power Producers) extensively argued for extending and diluting the norms using unsound arguments on science and timelines which helped them secure an extension for implementation of the norms running from 2019 to 2022 in a staggered timeline.

According to the phasing plan for installing FGD (Flue Gas Desulphurisation) 16410 MW capacity out of total 166472 MW should have installed it by December 2019 but only 8% of this target is  achieved so far which shows complete ignorance of public health emergency of air pollution in northern India by the power generators and the government.

Analysis of 440 plants across the country pointed out that bids for FGD have been awarded for only 36560 MW out of 166472MW which is only 22% of the target. Notices for inviting tenders (NIT) were issued for 99195 MW units only. The percentage of bids awarded by Central, State and Private sector were 38%; 2% & 4 % respectively out of the capacity to be retrofitted for respective sectors.

“Strict action must be taken against non-compliance of thermal power plants. The government must ensure the construction of new coal-fired power plants is halted and existing plants must be shut down in phases. Moving our energy generation sector from fossil fuels to renewables would help to prevent premature deaths and vast savings in health costs. A just energy transition to renewable energy is feasible, and we can’t afford to wait any longer.  Government and fossil fuel companies need to take action now.,” Chanchal concluded.

Rohin Kumar is a journalist


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