EARTH Thailand

Southeast Asia’s coal boom could cause 70,000 deaths per year by 2030, report says

Mongabay 16 January 2017 | Isabel Esterman

Approximately 50,000 lives a year could saved by 2030 if no new coal-fired power plants are built in Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan or Taiwan, a new study finds.

  • A Harvard University-led research study analyzed the health impacts of existing and planned coal-fired power plants in Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
  • The researchers found that air pollution from coal-fired power plants in the area of study currently causes around 20,000 premature deaths per year.
  • If all planned coal projects are constructed, that figure could rise to 70,000 deaths per year by 2030.
  • Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Myanmar would be most affected.

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants is already a major killer in Southeast Asia and that death toll could more than triple in the next 15 years, according to a study by researchers from Harvard University and Greenpeace published last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Myanmar would be the most affected, the study found.

Southeast Asia is in the midst of an intense drive to expand its power grid, with demand for electricity in 2035 projected to increase by 83 percent over 2011 levels. Much of that demand is slated to be met by coal, with Indonesia alone planning to build 176 new coal-fired power plants by 2030.

As a result, while emissions from coal have reduced in the United States and Europe (and are projected to decline in China), the researchers found that Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan could see their combined coal-related emissions triple by 2030.

If that happens, the region’s mortality rate will rise even faster. At present, air pollution from coal-fired power plants in the area of study were estimated to cause around 20,000 premature deaths per year. If all planned coal projects go through, that figure could reach 70,000 per year by 2030.

The researchers analyzed the impact of particulate matter and ozone pollution linked to existing and planned coal projects in 11 countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. (India and China were excluded due to the relative abundance of existing studies focusing on those countries.)

Calculations factored in the location and capacity of each project, local emissions standards and population trends in the project area. Results were analyzed using atmospheric models and global databases tracking and projecting causes of premature deaths.

Indonesia was found to be the most affected country, with coal-related air pollution projected to cause 24,400 excess deaths per year by 2030. Vietnam would follow with 19,220 excess deaths per year, while Myanmar could see 4,030 deaths per year. Although power plants within China were not included in the study, that country could face 8,870 premature deaths per year due to cross-border pollution from other Asian countries.

The extremely high death rate for Indonesia comes down to the country’s dense and rapidly growing population, the large number of planned projects, and its relatively weak emissions standards.

“Indonesia allows more than 10 times more pollution from a new coal-fired power plant than China does, which is quite astonishing,” study co-author Lauri Myllyvirta, air pollution specialist for Greenpeace East Asia, told Mongabay.

The densely populated island of Java was found to be a hotspot for projected air-quality impacts. “The power plants built next to large population centers have the worst overall health impacts,” Myllyvirta said.

That doesn’t mean that shifting plants to less populated areas is without costs. “If you are one person living, let’s say, 50 kilometers from a power plant the personal health risk is the same,” he explained. “It’s just because of the fact that more people are exposed that you see the bigger impact.”

Improving emissions standards could lead to “a very substantial decrease in health impacts,” Myllyvirta said. This is a perhaps even more true in Myanmar: “They have no standards, every project is just choosing what they like, what they want to do in terms of controlling emissions, so that’s definitely a particular worry.”

However, Myllyvirta said he hopes the study’s findings will encourage policymakers to look at more than just emissions controls. “For a number of reasons – the public health impacts, the impacts of coal mining on communities, the impacts of this coal expansion on the climate, for all these reasons – it would make sense for Southeast Asia to shift new investments into renewable energy as soon as possible,” he said.


Koplitz, S., Jacob D., Sulprizio, M., Myllyvirta, L., and Reid, C. (2017). Burden of Disease from Rising Coal-Fired Power Plant Emissions in Southeast Asia. Environmental Science and Technology, Publication (Web): Jan. 12, 2017.