A study by researchers from the University of Maryland, Urban Emissions Info, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Texas Tech University, published by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, has found that 78,000 deaths in India were already attributable to coal plants in 2018, the base year for the study. If all coal plants in the pipeline were set up, deaths linked to them would go up to 1,12,000 annually. And the lifetime impact of these new plants is estimated to be 8,44,000 premature deaths.
“We first run the model using estimates of emissions of PM2.5, NOx and SO2 from all sources except power plants in 2018… We run the model again, adding power plant emissions from 2018… In the third run, we add emissions from planned plants,” lead author Dr Maureen Cropper told TOI. Then, mortality was calculated for stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, diabetes mellitus and lung cancer.
They found that ambient PM2.5 in 2018 was 53.5µg/m3 — higher in the Indo-Gangetic plain and in areas with high coal-powered plants than in southern India — which would increase to 55.9µg/m3 if all planned plants started operating. With new plants, the share of coal-fired power plants to PM2.5 would go up from 9% in 2018 to 13% by 2030 across the country.
“In Odisha and Jharkhand, where planned plants double installed coal capacity, deaths increase by 50%,” the paper said. “Bihar and West Bengal are downwind of large expansions of capacity in Jharkhand and Odisha and, under the assumption that current pollution control practices continue, will experience significant health impacts from cross-border pollution.”
Two things could change the scale of this impact in opposite ways — households switching to cleaner fuels and full implementation of new air regulations.
“In Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh, over 75% households burn solid fuels for cooking; in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, approximately two-thirds of households do,” the paper said. “When people are already inhaling a lot of PM2.5 from household air pollution, the impact of power plant emissions is much smaller than if they were not exposed to household air pollution,” Cropper explained.
And while there are regulations for thermal power plant emissions, notified in 2015, they are not being enforced. The study calculated that mere implementation of the 2015 regulations would reduce coal power plant PM2.5 by up to 70% every year.