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Global emission hotspots of coal power generation

Nature Sustainabilityvolume 2pages113121 (2019) | Download Citation


Coal power generation is a primary cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) and toxic airborne emissions globally. We present a uniquely comprehensive inventory of CO2, methane, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury emissions for 7,861 coal-generating units including their supply chains. Total GHG and toxic substance emissions are largest from China, the United States, India, Germany and Russia (together >64% per pollutant). Overall supply chain contributions are below 19%, but exceed 75% for individual units and pollutants. Methane emissions from underground coal mining offset Chinese coal power plant efficiency advantages in comparison to India. Health impacts, as quantified by regionalized life cycle assessment, are highest in India and parts of eastern and southeastern Europe due to lack of modern flue gas treatment, and in China due to widespread coal power generation. Deployment of state-of-the-art flue gas treatment, driven by local emission limits, can mitigate health impacts in India and parts of Europe while it is already largely used in China and the United States. Phase-out of the 10% most polluting coal power plants (by capacity) would reduce coal power GHG emissions by 16% or human health impacts by 64%, respectively.

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Detailed descriptions of existing research, extended methods, additional results, discussion of policy relevance, limitations of this work, uncertainties, and recommendations for future work are available in the Supplementary Information. The emission dataset per power plant and the source code for the model is available at For specific questions or data requests, please contact the authors directly at

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We thank C. Walker for proofreading our manuscript, C. Bogdal and B. Denzler for advice on mercury health impacts, and S. Stocker and M. Lei for their contributions on coal washing and collection of Chinese power plant data.

Author information


  1. Institute of Environmental Engineering, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • C. Oberschelp
    • , S. Pfister
    • , C. E. Raptis
    •  & S. Hellweg


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C.O., S.P. and S.H. designed the research. C.O. collected the data and did the modelling with contributions from C.E.R. C.O. and S.P. interpreted the results. C.O. wrote the paper with inputs from S.P., C.E.R. and S.H.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. Oberschelp.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1–14, Supplementary Notes, Supplementary References 1–94

  2. Supplementary Dataset 1

    A broad range of machine-readable model input data and results, containing 37 data tables and a list of additional references

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