Coal power causes roughly 3,000 deaths per year in Germany

The campaign against coal power continues in Germany. Two new studies come to relatively similar estimates of the number of people who die every year from coal emissions in Germany alone – and one organization says some EU standards are more lax than those in China and the US. Craig Morris wonders whether the various numbers from different studies will convince skeptics.

Coal is relatively cheap, because environmental and health costs are externalized. (Photo by Elsdorf-blog.de, CC BY 3.0)

Coal is relatively cheap only because environmental and health costs are externalized. (Photo by Elsdorf-blog.de, CC BY 3.0)


A few weeks ago, I mentioned some estimates of the health impacts of coal power from Canada, the US, and India. Since then, two German organizations – Greenpeace and the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) – have produced studies on the impact of coal power in Germany.

But before we get to the numbers, it is interesting to note that HEAL finds that China and the US now have stricter emissions standards than the EU. For instance, the EU limits on nitrous oxide emissions after 2016 is 200 milligrams per cubic meter, compared to 117 milligrams in China and 100 in the US.

HEAL puts the healthcare cost of coal emissions in Germany at 2.3 to 6.4 billion euros – a rather unfortunately wide range that is unlikely to convince the general public. Furthermore, the estimate for the US in my previous article was $345 billion annually.

Even taking account of the population difference (there are roughly 4 times as many Americans as Germans), adjusting for the difference in healthcare costs (Americans roughly pay twice as much for roughly the same quality of healthcare as Germans), and taking the greatest estimate for Germany, we still end up with coal emissions leading to healthcare costs in the US that are approximately 5 times greater per capita than in Germany – an outcome that does not make sense in light of the German study’s claim that standards on emissions are more lax in Germany than in the US. Take the lower estimate for Germany, and the healthcare costs in the US are even 15 times greater.

But HEAL’s estimate of the number of deaths in Germany directly attributable to coal power emissions is close to Greenpeace’s. In a study published in English (PDF) just two days before my blog post, Greenpeace found that some 3,100 Germans die prematurely each year because of coal plant emissions. HEAL puts the number at 2,700 in its report, which is only in German (PDF).

Of course, you can never compare different studies with different methodologies, so we have to be a bit tolerant of differences in findings. I draw two conclusions from the discussion. First, we talk about the impact of wind turbines on birds and bats as though wildlife were completely unaffected by coal plant emissions, which wind power offsets; in fact, we need to deduct the small number of birds and bats killed by wind turbines from the much larger number that die from coal plant emissions.

And second, there is a “distributed” (not concerted) campaign among various German organizations against coal power in Germany, probably for the upcoming parliamentary elections this fall. I’m not the only one calling for a coal phaseout.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

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