Clean-up of Indian coal-fired power plants ‘could have saved 720,000 lives’

<span>A woman walks across a street engulfed by dense smog in Chennai, India, in the early hours of 14 January 2024.</span><span>Photograph: R Satish Babu/AFP/Getty Images</span>
A woman walks across a street engulfed by dense smog in Chennai, India, in the early hours of 14 January 2024.Photograph: R Satish Babu/AFP/Getty Images

Research has estimated the health impacts from the coal-fired power plants that operate across India.

Six hundred coal power plants generate more than 70% of India’s electricity. Despite regulations passed in 2015, fewer than 5% of these plants operate with modern systems to clean up air pollutants from their chimneys. In China, 95% of coal-fired power plants were fitted with clean-up technologies by 2013.

Dr Asif Qureshi of the Indian Institute of Technology in Hyderabad and his team used a computer simulation of air pollution across India to test what would have happened if new technologies had been fitted to the power plants. They looked at two different technologies and found that controlling sulphur was the most effective single step, but applying both technologies together yielded the greatest gains.

As many as 720,000 early deaths could have been avoided over a 10-year period if the power plants had been cleaned up in 2010. Particle pollution would have reduced by up to 11% across the country. The research team found that people living around power plants would have experienced the greatest benefit, up to a 28% reduction in particle pollution, leading to about a 17% reduction in early deaths.

Installation and running costs are often cited as a reason to delay. Qureshi’s team therefore compared the cost of clean-up systems to the cost of the lives lost.

The capital and operating cost were estimated to be between $19.5bn and $32.8bn (about £16-26bn) a year. The benefits depend on the monetary value assigned to a human life. Using a range of international values the researchers calculated a benefit of between $18bn and as much as $604bn US dollars (about £14-481bn).

Qureshi said: “Even at this screening level there appears to be a strong case to implement clean-up technologies. If the industry or the policymakers could buy into this way of looking at the problem, maybe pollution control can be accelerated.”

Prof Maureen Cropper of the University of Maryland in the US led an earlier study on the impacts of planned coal power stations in India. Rather than focus on power plants that were already built, Cropper’s team looked at future options.

Cropper said: “There are large health co-benefits from switching to renewable energy from coal-fired power plants. Not building the future coal capacity that was planned in India in 2019 would avoid at least 844,000 premature deaths over the lives of these plants.”