Britain to end love affair with coal and cash in on health savings

Drax power station at sunset, in the UK. Opened in 1974, it will be coal-free from 2025. [Shutterstock]

Britain has announced the phase-out of coal-fired power plants by 2025, ending its 250-year-long love affair with coal, in a move welcomed by health practitioners

The collapse of coal (counting for 40% of electricity production in 2012, and only 9% in 2016) drove a 50% fall in emissions from electricity generation between 2010 and 2016.

The British government announced the plan in 2015. On Monday (18 September) Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed the commitment at a joint press conference with Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. Details on how the phase-out will be implemented are set to be announced in October.

Coal, once the fuel of Britain’s industrialisation and the source of its imperial power, has been phased out quickly, replaced largely by nuclear, natural gas, and renewable energies.

Coal-powered power plants release a number of pollutants including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), heavy metals such as mercury, and particulate matter (PM) – all of which are dangerous for human health. Pollution is considered the largest environmental public health risk in the UK.

The positive impact of coal phase-out on pollution will deliver important health savings:

“Breathing in pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants increases the likelihood of developing ischaemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and exacerbates existing lung disorders. This health burden has been borne by people up and down the country and the NHS which carries the cost of treatment for these chronic conditions,” said Nick Watts, director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.

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Substantial coal power expansion in Europe has been significantly scaled back in recent years after utility companies realised they bet on the wrong horse, according to a new study by the University of Oxford.

“Estimates suggest that coal-fired power is responsible for 1,600 premature deaths every year in the UK, and costs the UK as much as £3.1bn each year in human health impacts,” added Heleh Stokes-Lampard, president of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

“GPs are usually the first port of call for patients with long-term health conditions and we are often left picking up the pieces from this pollution, treating the conditions that dirty air promotes. The government has taken a position of leadership on coal phase-out and we are encouraged to see signs of other countries following suit.”

EU must cut emissions and adapt to climate change now, auditors urge

A wide-reaching report on the European Union’s climate action has urged Brussels to step up emissions cuts and adapt more quickly to climate change because its current efforts were not sufficient.

Europe’s plans for increased coal capacity in the early 2000s have been written down, and only 12 of the 65 planned power stations have actually been built. This was largely due to an increase in renewable energy capacity and lower than expected energy demand.

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