Retiring power plants: a key climate mitigation strategy needed to reduce pollution-related mortality

People | Human Health

By Rup Priodarshini, Freelance Writer

Published February 4th, 2022

Globally, power plants contribute significantly to air pollution-related health effects. Retiring and reducing super-polluting power plants may be the key climate change mitigation strategy to reduce pollution-related mortality in Asian countries.

Air pollution is linked to reduced life expectancy. Both long- and short-term exposure to air pollutants released by the burning of fossil fuels, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, cause and exacerbate acute and chronic respiratory issues―contributing to premature mortality.

Fossil fuel power plants are a major contributor to air pollution. | Eelco Böhtlingk / Unsplash

These effects are most pronounced in economies that have seen rapid urbanisation in recent decades. Researchers suggest that around 92% of emission-related deaths in the 2010-2018 period occurred in emerging Asian economies.

Many analyses have concluded that the health and environmental benefits of curbing air pollution outweigh the economic costs, however, weak environmental regulations and poor enforcement mean high emissions often continue unchecked.

‘Around 92% of emission-related deaths in the 2010-2018 period occurred in emerging Asian economies.’

Climate mitigation strategies

Air pollution reduction strategies are diverse, ranging from afforestation to retrofitting power plants with desulphurisation technologies. The retirement of fossil fuel power plants altogether is a key climate change mitigation strategy. It is increasingly evident that wide-scale decarbonisation is necessary to avoid 1.5°C warming of the globe. Climate scientists propose that the phasing-out of power plants required to meet current international targets would yield significant improvements to air quality.

Air pollution and power plant retirement may not have a linear relationship with mortality. This is due to the uneven spatial distribution of high-emission plants, as plants with higher emission rates, located nearer to dense urban areas, are more likely to affect mortality. Therefore, a closer assessment of reduction scenarios is needed to determine which strategies would maximise health benefits.

A recent study from the University of California and Tsinghua University used unit-level modelling to project how different policy scenarios could impact the health of populations. This means that the potential benefit of retiring specific power plants is accounted for using data about the plant’s efficiency and emissions. Results revealed that mortality in emerging economies is highly sensitive to the trajectory of climate-energy policies.

India has the highest rates of air pollution-related mortality. | Bibhu Behera / Unsplash

Retiring super-polluting plants is a priority

The retirement of super-polluting plants in the densely populated economies of China, India and their neighbouring countries could have a disproportionately beneficial effect on mortality and human health. Super-polluting units are defined as those whose emission intensity is more than two standard deviations greater than average for the region. A power plant may be a super-polluter for one or multiple pollutants. The top 20 super-polluting plants are located in India, China and South Korea.

While evolving efficiency and diversification in systems of electricity generation will indeed lead to reduced mortality by 2050, shorter-term retirements, replacements and pollution controls of existing power plants could still significantly limit deaths over the next decade.

‘The top 20 super-polluting plants are located in India, China and South Korea’.

Scientists have begun to develop comprehensive methods for identifying and classifying super-polluting plants. These methods typically prioritise older and more inefficient plants. These are likely to be located in countries that have already reaped benefits from unfettered industrialisation, alleviating some critique that the most newly developing economies are unfairly targeted by mitigation demands.

One group of researchers has devised a ‘retirement index’ for coal-fired plants, where power plants are ranked based on age, efficiency, emission capacity, and the number of people affected. Another study sets out a plant-by-plant coal phaseout plan for China, which hosts over half of the world’s current coal capacity, using a range of metrics to select power plants for early retirement.

In India, over 50 power plants have been retired in the last five years and plans to stall the development of new coal plants are in consideration. Solar and hydro-power are being developed as economically viable alternative energy sources, a transition which has helped the country fulfil its goal of having 40% of its generation capacity fulfilled by non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.

A significant minority of super-polluting power plants are located in India. | Ninara / Flickr

However, China’s investment in coal has not declined alongside its increasing investment in net-zero alternatives. Researchers hope that rising coal prices will provide an incentive to retire fossil fuels in favour of cheaper renewable alternatives.

The health rewards of retiring power plants

Although systematic retirement of Asian super-polluters is yet to be evaluated, evidence from the USA connects power plant retirement with reduced asthma rates, improved fertility, reduced premature births and reduced monthly mortality rates among the elderly.

For developing Asian economies, the clear projected benefits of early retirement of super-pollutants are present under divergent climate-energy policy scenarios, indicating just how damaging these plants are. These findings indicate that early power plant retirement is, proportionally, a highly effective and essentially life-saving mitigation strategy.

Regardless, both developed and developing economies are urged to bear responsibilities for decarbonisation due to the widespread health impacts of fossil fuel reliance.

‘…early power plant retirement is, proportionally, a highly effective and essentially life-saving mitigation strategy.’

Recent studies on the effects of retirement carve a compelling path for climate change mitigation, pointing to clear climate-energy policy initiatives. Identifying and targeting super-polluting power plants is a strategic method for combatting the adverse environmental and health effects of air pollution and of climate change overall.

Featured Image: Shubert Ciencia | Flickr

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