Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photos from Wikipedia
During the recent G7 Summit held at Carbis Bay Hotel in the United Kingdom, the member countries agreed to end new government support for coal power “by the end of 2021” and “pledged to rapidly scale up technologies and policies that accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity.”
The seven nations – composed of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan – are doing the measures as part of their efforts to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change and “help a move toward cleaner energy.”
“Coal power generation is the single biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions,” the organization of the world’s seven largest so-called advanced economies was quoted as saying by Reuters. It added that “continued global investment in unabated coal power generation is incompatible with keeping 1.5⁰C within reach.”
Coal (from the Old English term col, which means “mineral of fossilized carbon”), which is mostly carbon, has variable amounts of other elements such as hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen. It is formed when dead plant matter decays into peat and is converted into coal by the heat and pressure of deep burial over millions of years.
Coal, primarily used as a fuel, is a relatively cheap and more accessible source of power. In fact, the International Energy Agency reported that as of 2016, coal remains an important fuel as it supplies about a quarter of the world’s primary energy and two-fifths of electricity.
The Philippines, which ranked first in the world for countries most affected by climate change in 2013, continues to be heavily dependent on coal energy. As of 2018, “coal is the country’s dominant energy source with a 52% share in gross power generation, followed by renewable energy sources (geothermal, hydro, solar, and wind) with 22% and natural gas at 21%,” reported The ASEAN Post in 2019.
The Philippines imports 75% of its coal supply, most of it from Indonesia and Australia. Environmentalists are worried that should coal plants continue to be the primary source of power generation, it could harm the ecology and jeopardize the health of the communities where the plant is located.
“Coal is not clean, not cheap, and not sustainable,” declared Khevin Yu, a campaigner at Greenpeace Philippines.
Coal may contain high heat content at economical costs, but many environmental problems are associated with its use. “Coal has long been linked to air pollution and ill effects on health,” pointed out Seth Dunn in a special report published in World Watch.
“Coal is a major public health hazard,” stressed Greenpeace, which published Coal: A Public Health Crisis. “Each stage of the coal life cycle – mining, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of post-combustion wastes – carries health risks that lead to lung, heart, and brain diseases, as well as work-related injuries.”
Particulate matter (dust, soot, and other solid air-borne pollutants) and sulfur dioxide are two of the most unhealthy by-products of coal combustion.
“Particulates penetrate deep into lungs,” explained Dunn. “Prolonged inhalation causes a range of respiratory and cardiovascular problems, such as emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart disease. It is also linked to higher infant mortality rates. The smallest particles can stay in an individual’s lungs for a lifetime, potentially increasing the risk of cancer.
Sulfur dioxide is produced when the sulfur in the coal reacts with oxygen. “Sulfur dioxide exposure is associated with increased hospitalization and death from pulmonary and heart disease, particularly among asthmatics and those with existing breathing problems,” Dunn said.
A previous report by Greenpeace estimated that coal plant emissions could kill up to 2,4000 Filipinos per year due to stroke, heart disease, and other cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Coal smoke contains potent carcinogens. Although there are no studies done on how many people living near the coal power plants develop cancer, a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that more than one billion rural poor rely on the fuel for cooking.
The United Nations health agency said that rural indoor air pollution from such cooking accounts for 1.8 of 2.7 million global annual deaths from air pollution, with women and children most at risk.
“Coal also contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and fluorine – toxic heavy metals that can impair the development of fetuses and infants and cause open soreness and bone decay,” Dunn pointed out.
The burning of coal releases pollutants that help contribute to acid rain. “When fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas are burned, many substances are emitted into the air,” explained H. Steven Dashefsky, author of Environmental Literacy: Everything You Need to Know about Saving Our Planet. “Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen compounds, and particulates are three such substances and are considered primary pollutants responsible in part for air pollution.
“These substances travel through the air and react with each other in the presence of sunlight to form secondary pollutants, such as sulfuric and nitric acids. When these acids fall to earth with rain, it is called acid rain.”
The most apparent damage caused by acid rain is the destruction of statues that crumble from the acids, but the most serious effects are less noticeable. Studies show acid rain at levels below 5.1 kill fish and destroy aquatic ecosystems since most organisms have narrow pH tolerance ranges.
Acid rain also weakens and kills trees and stunts the growth of crops and other plants.
In addition, coal-burning may release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thus causing the climate change phenomenon.
“Ranging from less than 20 to more than 98%t in carbon content, coal is the most carbon-rich fossil fuel,” Dunn informed. “The industrial era’s heavy combustion of these fuels is short-circuiting the global carbon cycle, building up atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to their highest point in 420,000 years.”
Studies have shown that coal-fired electric power generation emits almost 1,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour generated. This is almost double the approximately 490 kilograms of carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant per megawatt-hour generated.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means it traps heat in the atmosphere. It enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels and is removed from the atmosphere when it is absorbed by plants as part of the biological carbon cycle.
The other greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases (those emitted from a variety of manufacturing and industrial processes), and water vapor.
Carbon dioxide accounts for about 76% of global human-caused emissions. “Carbon dioxide sticks around for quite a while,” Natural Resources Defense Council’s Melissa Dencak writes. “Once it’s emitted into the atmosphere, 40% still remains after 100 years, 20% after 1,000 years, and 10% as long as 10,000 years later.”