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ClientEarth Communications

16th May 2019

Fossil fuels

Coal in Europe: it's time to stop digging

Europe has a coal problem

Climate change means droughts, floods, rising sea levels, extreme weather and nature loss. How much carbon dioxide we release will decide how serious these impacts are. Burning coal is a major contributor. There are currently over 200 coal plants left in Europe. 

But governments in the EU hand out billions in subsidies to prop up coal every year. And coal’s toxic problems don’t end with climate change.

Coal plant towers

What’s wrong with coal?

It’s well known that coal plays a major part in driving climate change.

What are less widely known are coal’s insidious health effects.

Between coal dust, ash and stack emissions, the coal industry exposes everyone to mercury, arsenic, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, all of which pose proven and serious health risks.

In Bulgaria, figures show the rate of lung disease is dramatically elevated in the areas around coal plants. Meanwhile, a recent US study showed that the rate of premature births fell in areas near coal power plants when they closed.

Coal is terrible for your health. It’s also bad for your environment.

As well as causing air pollution, water discharged from plants can heat waterways making them uninhabitable for fish and other wildlife. Mercury often finds its way into local waterways as well, further damaging the ecosystem.

Which chemicals are released when you burn coal?

There’s no such thing as clean coal. The costs to our health and to the health of our planet are enormous. Here are just some of the heavy metals and other harmful chemicals released when coal is burned:


Nitrous Oxides can irritate airways and cause breathing problems. Long-term exposure can compromise your lung function, increase the risk of respiratory conditions and increase your response to allergens. NOx gases also react to form acid rain and smog.


Sulphur Dioxide reacts with other chemicals to form a wide range of toxic compounds. It causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. People with asthma and other respiratory conditions are particularly at risk.


Mercury: a known neurotoxin and a threat to the development of babies in the womb and early in life. Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. One of the WHO's top ten chemicals of major public health concern.


Toxic heavy metals: from cadmium and chromium to lead and arsenic, coal mining lets loose heavy metal elements in quantities that are a major health concern. In Greece, poor ash storage contaminated local water with levels of hexavalent chromium – known to cause cancer, and damaging to the respiratory system, kidneys, liver, skin and eyes. The contamination was so high that the water source had to be cut off immediately.

Does coal cause climate change?

Yes, it does.

In fact, coal is the worst fossil fuel for greenhouse gas emissions.

The EU’s coal plants are almighty carbon emitters. One power plant alone – Poland’s Belchatow – emits four times as much as Ryanair’s entire fleet of passenger planes every year.

To have any chance of meeting the climate goals laid out in the global Paris Agreement, we have to move beyond coal by 2030. Europe can do this – but there is too little progress and too little ambition.

There are more than 250 plants left in Europe – and plans to build more, even as others struggle to earn their keep. We have to stop this. Too many communities have been robbed of their homes and futures, and too many people are being robbed of their health.

Coal pollutes at every stage

  1. From where it's mined - either locally, or in countries like Colombia where coal poses major human rights issues - and through its journey to the plant.

  2. When it's moved, it leaves a legacy. Tankers spill toxic dust into the sea when it's delivered at the port.

  3. Trucks and trailers sprinkle it onto roads and railways while it's in transit.

  4. Dust blows off the coal piles while it waits to be burned.

  5. Finally, gases and heavy metals are released as the coal is burned; these come out through the stack and are propelled far and wide, beyond local and even national boundaries.

  6. Meanwhile, coal ash deposits leach dangerous chemicals and heavy metals into soil and local water supplies.

  7. When the mine or power plant is decommissioned, carcinogenic chemicals will remain in the soil for generations.

The villages killed by coal

There are more than 150 coal power plants left in Europe. But across the continent action is not happening fast enough.
Ilona Jedrasik, Energy Lead, Poland

What is ClientEarth doing to end coal in Europe?

In Poland, where I’m based, coal remains king. Europe’s most disastrous coal plant, Belchatow, continues to blight lives. We are fighting it.

Turkey has plans to build around 17 more plants. Germany is clinging to coal, under pressure from industry: seven of Europe’s top ten worst carbon emitters are in Germany.

In the UK, the pledged 2025 coal phase-out still hasn’t been written into law.

Governments across the EU are still breathing life into coal with major subsidies. Europe needs to get a grip on its coal problem.

ClientEarth is using the law to force action on coal

We have live legal challenges across the EU from Spain to Bulgaria. We’re committed to fighting the injustices that let coal ruin lives. You can explore our actions against coal below. We’re grateful for your support.

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