Phasing out coal for the good of our health

In the lead up to the Paris negotiations, the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP, announced that the Government plans to phase out coal by 2025. Because coal is immensely harmful to health, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which brings together the UK’s major health institutions, strongly supports this move.

We would like to see this proposal enter legislation and for the burning of the major pollutant - coal - to come to an end. Ensuring that this happens would be a major leap forward for climate change and health. As the originator of the industrial revolution, to become the first country to phase out coal and lead the world to act similarly, would be a momentous step to take.

Burning coal seriously affects air quality, human health, and climate change. It produces a number of air pollutants that are harmful to health, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Air pollution from burning coal causes heart disease, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections among children.

Burning coal causes 1,600 premature deaths, 68,000 additional days of medication, 363,266 working days lost and more than a million incidents of lower respiratory symptoms across the UK, costing us up to £3.1 billion each year. Overall air pollution is now officially the biggest public health risk after smoking and kills 40,000 each year in the UK, as shown in the Royal College of Physicians' and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s report.

Coal plants are one of largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, the primary cause of climate change. In the UK, coal-fired power plants generate almost 30% of electricity and 17% of all CO2 emissions. Ending the burning of coal is an essential component of the response to climate change and its dangerous impacts. Not only does coal directly affect health through its contribution to poor air quality, but its role in warming the planet also causes adverse consequences for health.

The effects of climate change, already felt in the UK, are worsening. In the UK, extreme weather events like floods and heat waves carry a significant health burden. The death toll exceeded 70,000 in Europe during the 2003 heat wave. Across the globe, climate change alters the spread and distribution of many infectious diseases, exposing new (and often vulnerable) populations to malaria, dengue fever, and cholera. Failing crops, lower grain yields, and increased crop prices from higher temperatures and shifting participation patterns is leading to increasing malnutrition, particularly in developing countries.

Climate change also significantly impacts on mental health. Studies conducted after the 2007 floods in the UK found that flood victims experienced up to a five-fold increase in mental health symptoms. 

Putting an end to burning coal is a major health opportunity. It is arguably one of the easiest measures to reduce climate change and a common-sense, cost-effective public health intervention in its own right. For the Government to deliver on its promise and end the use of coal in the UK would provide the necessary leadership to accelerate the phase-out of coal globally. This is needed to commit to the deal struck in Paris, to keep global temperature change to well below 2°C.

The use of coal, as one of the dirtiest, most polluting and inefficient energy sources, must end if we hope to protect the health of our environment and communities.

Dr Nick Watts is the Director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.