Air quality, health and toxics impacts of the proposed coal mining and power cluster in Thar, Pakistan

Pakistan is the second most polluted country in the world after Bangladesh when ranked by population weighted PM2.5 concentration. High pollution levels make air pollution the leading environmental risk factor for mortality in Pakistan, accounting for more than 9% of deaths (128,000) in 2017 alone with the expectancy in country reduced by about 2 years and 8 months. The high levels of air pollution are currently putting the Pakistani population at an elevated risk from the unfolding COVID-19 epidemic.

Despite hazardous air pollution situation Pakistan is still adding more pollution sources in the form of fossil fuel burning capacity through coal based power plant additions. This becomes even more critical when the country lacks stringent emission standards for controlling emissions from coal based power plants similar to the standards which exist in EU, US, China as well as have been notified in 2015 in India as well. As of January 2020, Pakistan has 5090 MW coal based power generation capacity out of which 4900 MW has been added over the past three years.

Apart from the operational coal capacity there is an additional capacity of more than 6000 MW in various stages of development which will further deteriorate the air quality and health through emission of hazardous pollutants.

A massive cluster of coal mines and power plants, with a total of 9 power plants and a total capacity of 3,700 megawatts are being proposed in the Thar region alone; 660 megawatt has already been commissioned. The proposed plants would constitute one of the largest air pollutant, mercury and CO2 emissions hotspots in South Asia. This report assesses the impacts of these power plants and coal mines, finding that:

  • Pakistan is already suffering from air pollution levels that are among the highest in the world, reducing life expectancy in the country by more than 2.5 years and increasing the vulnerability of Pakistanis to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  •  More than 95% of Pakistan’s installed coal-based electricity generation capacity (5090 MW) was commissioned during the past 3 years, with more than 6000 MW still in various stages of development.  This is happening at a time when coal-based power plants and plans are being scrapped across the globe due to high climate, air pollution and economic impacts.
  • A massive cluster of coal mines and power plants, with a total of 9 power plants and a total capacity of 3,700 megawatts is being proposed in the Thar region alone out of which 660 megawatts has already been commissioned at Thar Block II power station. The proposed plants would constitute one of the largest air pollutant, mercury and CO2 emissions hotspots in South Asia.
  • The air pollutant emissions from the plants and mines would expose an estimated 100,000 people to exceedances of the World Health Organization guideline for 24-hour average SO2 concentrations and 3,000 people to exceedances of the guidelines for 24-hour average PM2.5 concentrations.
  • The power plants and mines would be responsible for a projected 29,000 (95% confidence interval: 22,000-37,000) air pollution-related deaths over an operating life of 30 years. Other health impacts include 40,000 asthma emergency room visits, 19,900 new cases of asthma in children, 32,000 preterm births, 20 million days of work absence (sick leave) and 57,000 years lived with disability related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and stroke.
  • The plants would emit an estimated 1,400 kg of mercury per year, of which one fifth would be deposited into land ecosystems in the region. Most of the deposition takes place onto cropland, increasing the mercury concentrations in crops. The levels of mercury deposition are potentially dangerous in an area with 100,000 inhabitants.

Based on findings, the report recommends that:

  • Stringent emission standards should be developed and enforced to control PM, SO2, NO2 and Hg pollution emission as well as to reduce the usage of water by operational coal based power plants, similar to other countries such as those in force in the EU and China, and being implemented in India.
  • It is essential to fully assess and take into account the cost of air pollution and other external impacts when making decisions about future power generation. Meeting growth in electricity demand by renewable energy development would greatly reduce these costs.
  • The planned addition of a large amount of coal-fired capacity would worsen Pakistan’s already hazardous air quality, while adding to the indebtedness of the power sector and increasing capacity charges for untitled power from these coal based plants. In order to reduce such negative impacts on public health and the economy, the coal based plants in early stages of development should be cancelled and currently operational plants should be used at optimal capacity to be able to meet electricity demand more economically.

Presentation at report launch press conference.

Lauri Myllyvirta & Sunil Dahiya