Coal power plants in India most lethal in the world: Study

Coal power plants in India most lethal in the world: Study

A recent study called global emission hotspots of coal power generation has made shocking revelations about the coal hotspots in different countries and their global emissions.

The study reveals that China and the US are the largest producers of coal power in the world, but when it comes to health, plants in India take the highest toll.

Coal power generation is a primary cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) and toxic airborne emissions globally, said researchers from ETH Zurich in Switzerland.
Coal burning not only produces carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming but also releases particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury, thus damaging the health of many people around the world.

About the researchers and study

The study was led by C Oberschelp, S Pfister, C E Raptis, and S Hellweg from ETH Zurich’s Institute of Environmental engineering.

To estimate where action is most urgently required, the researchers modelled and calculated the undesired side effects of coal power for each of the 7,861 power plant units in the world.


1. Central Europe, North America, and China all have modern power plants, but Eastern Europe, Russia, and India still have many older power plants equipped with insufficient flue gas treatment, said Hellweg.

2. Thus, these power plants only remove a fraction of the pollutants, while also often burning coal of inferior quality.

3. According to Oberschelp, the lead authot of the study, “more than half of the health effects can be traced back to just one-tenth of the power plants. These power plants should be upgraded or shut down as quickly as possible. India has the highest number of such power plants.

The global picture of coal power production shows that the gap between privileged and disadvantaged regions is widening. This is happening for two reasons –

  • Wealthy countries — such as in Europe — import high-quality coal with a high calorific value and low emissions of harmful sulphur dioxide
  • The poorer coal-exporting countries such as Indonesia, Colombia and South Africa are left with low-quality coal, which they often burn in outdated power plants without modern flue gas treatment to remove the sulphur dioxide.

“In Europe, we contribute to global warming with our own power plants, which has a global impact. However, the local health damage caused by particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide occurs mainly in Asia, where coal power is used to manufacture a large proportion of our consumer products,” said Oberschelp.

“Global coal resources will last for several hundred years, so the harmful emissions need to be limited politically. It is particularly important to leave coal that is high in mercury and sulphur content in the ground,” said Oberschelp.

The need of the hour

Reducing the negative health effects of coal power generation should be a global priority.

The initial investment costs for the construction of a coal power plant are high, but the subsequent operating costs are low. Power plant operators thus have an economic interest in keeping their plants running for a long time, according to researchers.

“The best option is, therefore, to not build any new coal power plants. From a health and environment perspective, we should move away from coal and towards natural gas — and in the long term, towards renewable energy sources,” said Oberschelp.

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 US, mentioned the study.

“Phase-out of the 10 per cent most polluting coal power plants (by capacity) would reduce coal power GHG emissions by 16 per cent or human health impacts by 64 per cent, respectively,” they said.