What is the Real Cost of Coal to our Planet?

We know that thermal power generation is carbon intensive and hence releases billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s an undeniable burden on the climate. But does coal as an energy source have other costs associated with it?

Actually, it does. And each one is worse than the other. Let’s consider the most immediate ones:

Cost of Coal #1: Devastating Landscapes

Mining coal from above the ground (open cast mining as is widely done in India) involves large scale destruction of landscape. Thousands of trees have to be felled and vegeation burned to clear the way to the topsoil. The topsoil is then blasted away to reveal the underlying coal deposits. The procedure – known as “mountaintop removal” – can at times lop off as much as 600 feet.

What it also does is make the landscapes more prone to landslides, dislodging of giant boulders and flash floods. Additionally, it pollutes local streams with carcinogens and heavy metals such as mercury, thereby poisoning local biodiversity and ecosystems.

Cost of Coal #2: Health Impacts on Communities

Coal miners are known to be at a much greater risk of life threatening diseases such as black lung and lung cancer. However, even populations in communities near coal mining sites have been documented with elevated rates of heart, respiratory and kidney ailments. These communities have to bear much greater healthcare costs and suffer from lower life expectancy rates.

Cost of Coal #3: Cross Border Impacts

Acid rain – classified as the precipitation of water mixed with dissolved acids – is in part caused by emissions from thermal power plants. It damages crops across vast geographies, chokes fisheries and exacerbates the acidification of our oceans. All of these effects span international borders.

The Real Cost of Coal

It’s hard to put a price tag on each of these impacts. However, in an attempt by a group of economists, doctors and publich health researchers from the US, the total cost of the devastation caused by coal runs into several hundred billion dollars to the world economy. This includes $187 billion in the cost of degraded air quality levels and 61$ billion for all the carbon being spewed into the atmosphere.

The group also devised a new parameter, called the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC), and it is now estimated that given all of its tangible and intangible impacts, the SCC should be pegged at somwhere close to $220 per ton of coal burned. To understand what that means, if all coal subsidies were removed and the full cost be accounted, thermal electricity would easily cost us more than three times its present costs. That would make it our least preferred energy choice.

As environmental consciousness grows, the pressure to account for the cost of coal will rise. This is good news for renewable energy resources. And that’s the best thing that can happen for the environment – if it happens fast enough.

To read more about the cost of coal, click here.

Aniruddha Bhattacharjee
Aniruddha Bhattacharjee
Aniruddha has been a renewable energy researcher and report writer for over 3 years. He has also been a content developer for multiple websites, including portals on travel and tourism, restaurants and personal finance. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's in endangered species conservation. Apart from renewable energy, Aniruddha is a keen motor sports and aviation enthusiast, and a beginner in photography.
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