The early and strategic closure of the world’s worst polluting power stations, including inefficient fossil fuel and biomass plants, could avoid the premature deaths of up to six million people by 2050, new research has found.
The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that retiring the most polluting and most harmful power stations – by focusing on addressing air pollution concerns as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions – would save millions of lives.
The research has been led by professor Qiang Zhang, of Tsinghua University in Beijing, who modelled the potential impacts of both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution caused by power generation, particularly coal.
The research group identified several power stations that were disproportionately responsible for air pollution and poor health – including both fossil fuel and biomass generators – finding that the “strategic” closure of these power stations could help avoid as many as six million premature deaths by 2050.
A critical conclusion of the research was a finding that policies based on climate change concerns alone were not sufficient to guarantee that appropriate action was taken to protect public health, particularly when it came to reducing air pollutants that contributed to respiratory issues, but may not contribute to global warming.
“Our detailed and dynamic analysis of climate, pollution and health impacts from the future power systems at the level of individual generating units reveals that air pollution deaths are not an automatic and fixed co-benefit of all climate mitigation,” the research paper says.
“Rather, pollution controls and strategic retirements of the most-polluting and harmful power plants may ultimately determine the extent to which health co-benefits are realised.”
The research found that between 2010 and 2018, 91 per cent of the premature deaths caused by power station pollution occurred in lower-income or emerging economies.
These included India, China and other countries across Southeast Asia where softer regulatory controls, closer proximity of power stations to densely populated regions and higher industrial activity caused smog and other particulate pollution.
The worst offenders were smaller coal generators, especially those below 300MW in generation capacity, which are more likely to be found in developing countries, which accounted for more than half of air pollution related deaths.
“Strategic power plant retirements (either performance-based or early retirements) especially help in low-income and emerging economies whose power-generating units are young but which tend to have smaller generating capacities, lower efficiencies and higher pollution emissions per unit capacity,” the paper says.
Coal plants made up 46 per cent of the world’s generation capacity, but were responsible for 80 per cent of power generation-related air pollution deaths.
“Even assuming successful climate change mitigation and strong pollution controls, implementing our data-driven approach to targeting super-polluting units for retirement and replacement could save millions of lives worldwide by the middle of the century,” the report says.
The research challenges the assertions of some within the Morrison government that Australia’s ongoing exports of fossil fuels were helping to alleviate poverty and improve health across the Asian region.
The research is the latest addition to a growing body of evidence that the ongoing use of fossil fuels is not just a global environmental concern due to global warming, that it is also a significant public health concern, contributing to substantial increases in air pollution that causes major health problems and premature deaths.
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