As many as 115,000 people die in India each year from coal-fired power plant pollution, costing the country about $4.6 billion, according to a groundbreaking new study released today.

The report by the Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust is the first comprehensive examination of the link between fine particle pollution and health problems in India, where coal is the fuel of choice and energy demands are skyrocketing.

The findings are stunning. In addition to more than 100,000 premature deaths, it links millions of cases of asthma and respiratory ailments to coal exposure. It counts 10,000 children under the age of 5 as fatal victims last year alone.

"I didn't expect the mortality figures per year to be so high," said Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust.

Goenka described health impacts as "one of the most neglected aspects" of local environmental impact assessments, saying, "We're so used to reading the EIA reports year after year saying, 'There are no impacts on health and human development.'"

The report, produced with Greenpeace India, uses power plant data compiled by former World Bank air pollution analyst Sarath Guttikunda, founding director of a Delhi-based organization focused on sharing scientific information called Urban Emissions. The data is based on plant and fuel characteristics, since India, researchers said, does not make continuous and open-source monitoring information available at the plant level.

Researchers then used models to estimate changes in ambient pollutant concentrations due to the presence of coal-fired plants in the region and estimated health impacts using peer-reviewed methodologies used in similar studies around the world. The report also has been submitted to the journal Atmospheric Environment.

'Entirely avoidable'?
Calling the findings "shocking," the authors said the sickness and death related to coal emissions underscores the need to enact more stringent emissions standards, deploy advanced pollution control technologies and increase the use of cleaner energy options.

"The data represents a clarion call to action to avoid the deadly, and entirely avoidable, impact this pollution is having on India's population," the authors wrote. Without changes, they warned, "hundreds of thousands of lives will continue to be lost due to emissions from coal power plants. Any attempts to weaken even the current environmental regulations will add to this unfolding human tragedy."

The study finds the impacts are concentrated in central and northern India. One region, covering clusters in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar, saw between 7,900 and 11,000 of all premature deaths.

Currently, India produces about 201 gigawatts of power, with more than half of its electricity generation coming from coal. A recent study by the World Resources Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., found that capacity is expected to more than double to 519 GW with the construction of 455 proposed new plants. That is only slightly less than pending new capacity in China, the world's reigning king of coal (ClimateWire, Sept. 17, 2012).

Meanwhile, coal industry leaders say they are optimistic about coal's ability to deliver developing countries out of energy poverty and have noted that coal is expected to surpass oil as the world's leading energy source by 2015.

Air conditioning will push more use
National Mining Association President Hal Quinn told the U.S. Energy Association's annual State of the Energy Industry Forum recently that India's coal-fired portfolio alone will grow from 65 percent of total generation to as much as 80 percent by 2025.

"Just bringing the city of Mumbai [population 13 million] to our level of cooling would equal the air conditioning needs of the entire U.S.," he said.

And industry leaders have focused recently on ways to impose cleaner coal technologies, including at a major conference in Delhi earlier this month featuring high-level government and industry leaders focusing on coal gasification, carbon capture and storage, upgrades and other measures to improve efficiency and reduce pollution.

Still, the authors said, they see some entrenched problems -- including the fact that industry officials perform air quality monitoring with an outdated and inaccurate system. They described the study as a first step in encouraging the government to understand the added costs of the seemingly inexpensive fuel source.

"The government is still stuck on seeing coal as the answer to India's energy needs," said Ashish Fernandes of Greenpeace. "Until we actually get people to start seeing the actual cost of what that entails, it's going to be an uphill battle."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500