Last Gasp: The coal companies making Europe sick

Coal companies are making Europeans sick. The coal that they burn has serious and very well known impacts on human health.

There are 103 companies that still operate coal power plants in the EU. For the first time, this report models every company’s impact from their coal power plants on the air we breathe, and how that adversely impacts people’s health.

Last Gasp: The coal companies making Europe sick

Using the most recent, officially reported coal power plant pollution data from 2016, this report applies state-of-the-art atmospheric modelling and methodologies to estimate the impact of these coal power plants on human health.

This report finds that just ten companies were responsible for an estimated two-thirds of the health damage caused by coal power plants in 2016. These companies caused a modelled 7,600 premature deaths, 3,320 new cases of chronic bronchitis and 137,000 asthma symptom days in children. This leads to an estimated 5,820 hospital admissions and over two million lost working days.

Four of the ten most toxic companies have their main coal plants in Germany: RWE, EPH, Uniper and Steag. This is no coincidence: Germany burns more coal than any other country in Europe, and has done little to reduce air pollution from its coal plants in the last decade. Three of the ‘toxic ten’ are in Poland: PGE, ENEA and ZE PAK. The final three are: ČEZ in the Czech Republic, Endesa in Spain, and Bulgarian Energy Holding in Bulgaria.

Coal-fired electricity in Europe is in terminal decline. Wind and solar are taking over and making coal plants redundant, but the speed of change remains important. Many companies still have no plans to retire their coal plants. Those coal companies bear a significant responsibility for the health impact they have caused and are causing; decision makers have a duty to hold them accountable on behalf of their citizens. Committing to an ambitious and just transition away from coal by 2030 or earlier is the only way these companies and governments can begin to address the consequences of operating coal power plants.

Following on from the Last Gasp, Europe Beyond Coal partners HEAL, Bankwatch and Climate Action Network released Chronic Coal Pollution, a new report that explores the impact of coal pollution on health in the Western Balkans. It emphasises the prognosis of EU action to improve health and economies across Europe.

Czech plant with the permission to pollute

The Chvaletice coal-powered plant in the Czech Republic has been granted permission by regional authorities to break EU rules on nitrous oxide and mercury emissions. Hundreds of avoidable premature deaths are likely to occur over the next decade as a result. The Czech Republic is the EU’s fifth-largest net electricity exporter, and Chvaletice could be switched off without impacting domestic energy security, yet authorities allow it to continue operating. Chvaletice is nothing other than a money-making scheme at the expense of people’s health and the climate, and it needs to be retired. 

“Coal utilities like Germany’s RWE know very well the health problems they are responsible for. But as this report shows, the impact of their pollution is far broader and more serious than is generally understood. Europe is a densely-populated region, and a coal plant in any one country threatens the health of people all over Europe. Ambitiously phasing out coal plants by or before 2030 will improve health outcomes for countless people.”

Kathrin Gutmann

Campaign Director, Europe Beyond Coal

“Air pollution and climate change share a common driver: Coal. As both worsen, the costs to citizens grow. Like the IPCC’s recent warning that we only have 12 years to move beyond coal, this report makes the coal companies’ responsibility for air pollution crystal clear, as well as the duty of our decision makers to hold them accountable. They can both start protecting human health and the climate today, by ceasing investment into coal, by ending lobbying efforts for longer plant lives and yet more subsidies, and by committing to an ambitious and just transition away from coal by 2030 the latest.”

Nina Stros

EU Coal Campaign Lead, Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe

“This is madness. The knock-on health costs of burning coal are higher than the current wholesale electricity price. It should scare people that some CEOs dare to ask for state aid compensation for earlier closures of their underperforming coal plants while already benefiting from lax pollution standards. Decision makers should ensure those that pollute our environment pick up the cleaning bill. It is high time for utility companies to be liable for health costs and move to clean energy.”

Christian Schaible

Industrial Production Policy Manager, European Environmental Bureau

“The two worst companies are Germany’s RWE and EPH. They burn more coal than anyone else, they burn it in highly populated regions, and they burn lignite – the dirtiest coal. These results underline the urgency with which governments like Germany’s must treat this issue, and phase-out coal as quickly as possible. We have an air pollution crisis, and human health must be prioritised.”

Dave Jones

Lead author of the report and European power and coal analyst, Sandbag

“For decades coal companies have been profiting at the expense of people’s health and the climate while receiving all sorts of state support. And they continue to lobby governments across Europe to set aside billions of euros of public subsidies for coal, while people across Europe continue to pay for this dirty business. Ahead of the next climate summit all eyes are now on the European Union. EU governments need to put an end to all subsidies for coal and flesh out ambitious plans for phasing out coal by 2030 the latest. This is crucial in order for the bloc to regain its climate leadership.”

Joanna Flisowska

Coal Policy Coordinator, Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe

The health impact methodology used in this report is guided by recommendations from the World Health Organization Europe’s ‘Health risks of air pollution in Europe’ (HRAPIE) project on health impact assessments for air pollution. It includes atmospheric modelling with the European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme Meteorological Synthesizing Centre – West (EMEP MSC-W) computer model, which is also used by the European Environment Agency for European Commission assessments of health impacts from air pollution in Europe. They are based on publicly available, relevant data known of by the authors; this data may not be exhaustive and there may exist further or updated information they were not aware of at the time of writing. This report does not attempt to quantify actual health occurrences nor their actual costs.