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Coal emission deaths set to spike: Study

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Our Special Correspondent Published 11.12.14, 12:00 AM

New Delhi, Dec. 10: India's burden of premature mortality linked to air pollution from burning coal could double to over 220,000 deaths a year by 2030 under a planned expansion of coal-based power plants, a report has predicted.

Released yesterday, the report from two non-government organisations has estimated that premature mortality from the health impacts of coal emissions could touch up to 229,000 each year by 2030 and has called on the government to impose stricter emission standards on thermal power plants.

India's installed capacity for coal is likely to expand from about 160GW in 2014 to over 450GW by 2030 with the largest growth predicted in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha.

The report has warned that in the absence of regulations on thermal power plant emissions of sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, the expansion is likely to double the levels of these air pollutants.

'With India's planned energy mix, coal expansion is unavoidable,' said Sarath Guttikunda, founder and executive director Urban Emissions, a private research organisation that partnered with the Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust to produce the report. 'But we're calling for a cleaner expansion,' he said.

While India has imposed emission standards (limits) for particulate matter, or soot particles, spewed by thermal power plants, government regulations do not mandate any standards on either sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, or mercury.

'There's only a thumb rule: the higher the concentration of sulphur dioxide, the higher should be the height of the stack (chimney),' Guttikunda told The Telegraph. 'So, the higher the pollution load, the further it is likely to be dispersed through the atmosphere.'

The report comes amid plans by Australia to export about 60 million tonnes of coal to India from its Carmichael mine in the Queensland Galilee Basin. The Conservation Action Trust had in October filed a legal challenge against Carmichael claiming that emissions from its coal would harm the health of the Indian population. The challenge is to be heard in a Queensland court in March-April 2015.

The estimates of premature mortality are based on mathematical models of how the anticipated increase in air pollutants from thermal power plants is likely to contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and deaths.

An earlier similar modeling exercise had indicated that the number of premature deaths from emissions from coal burning was between 80,000 and 115,000 deaths in 2011-12.

China, the European Union and the US are among countries that have imposed standards for emissions of sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen from thermal power plants. The report points out that while India has over 140 coal-fired plants, only four use desulphurisation technology.

The existing plants can be retrofitted with desulphurisation equipment, Guttikunda said, but they have not adopted the technology because it has not been mandated by the government. 'The technology will mean extra costs,' he said. 'But it brings health benefits.'

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