ENERGY IMPACTS

Decommissioning coal

Coal-fired power plants produce substantial carbon emissions and air pollution. Shutting down such power plants would prevent these emissions, but not all closures would equally mitigate air pollution and the associated health impacts. Closing those power plants near densely populated areas should have the greatest health benefit, but the typical way to estimate the health impacts from air pollution is at the industry-level, not the level of an individual unit.

Jin Li of Tsinghua University, China, and colleagues determined the human health benefits of decommissioning coal-fired power plants in China using a new indicator, health benefit by carbon reduction, or H/C. The 2018 emission inventory of 4,689 power plants estimated that over 100 thousand tons of particulate matter was emitted, with higher total amounts for pollutants such as sulphur dioxide (684.4 thousand tons), nitrogen oxides (937.9 thousand tons) and carbon dioxide (3.302 billion tons). Over 35 thousand premature deaths were linked to coal-fired emissions in the same year. Substantial differences in emissions and health impacts were noted across China — the southwest region had up to eight times higher emission factors compared with other regions. Notably, the southwest, the Pearl River Delta, Yangtze River Delta and Shandong Province would have the highest health benefits from the reduction of air pollution. If future decisions for the coal-fired power plants were based on the H/C index, then ones that are generally smaller and older near densely populated areas would be closed earlier, maximizing the health benefits of power plant closure.

Credit: owngarden/Getty Images

Decommissioning coal-based power will not only reduce air pollution, but can reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere, aiding in efforts to stay within the 1.5 °C target within the Paris Agreement. Although it is unlikely that coal power will cease to be an energy source in the near future, studies quantifying the impacts of specific power plants (and identifying the most harmful ones) could facilitate efficient and effective change.

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Original article

  1. Li, J. et al. Incorporating Health Cobenefits in Decision-Making for the Decommissioning of Coal-Fired Power Plants in China. Environ. Sci. Technol. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.0c03310 (2020)

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Correspondence to Laura Zinke.

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Zinke, L. Decommissioning coal. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 626 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-00114-y

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