Open-Source Methods for Estimating Health Risks of Fine Particulate Matter from Coal-Fired Power Plants: A Demonstration from Karachi, Pakistan

Karachi, Pakistan. Photo by Muneer Ahmend via Unsplash.

The primary purpose of environmental impact assessments (EIA) is to provide insight to decision makers regarding the environmental consequences of their actions. Ideally, they are done to mitigate harm and modify development plans to maintain environmental quality. The use of EIAs is now commonplace in both developed and developing countries, but there are rising concerns over EIA efficacy tied to local enforcement of environmental regulation and policy stringency.

For example, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been financing and building infrastructure projects across Asia, Europe, Africa and South America, including until recently, coal-fired power plants. Chinese actors largely defer to host governments when it comes to evaluating the environmental dimensions of BRI investment projects, including EIAs completed during planning phases to address localized environmental impacts. This means that a number of BRI projects are governed by weaker environmental policies, implementation and enforcement than in China and EIA enforcement is lax. 

To bridge the gap between the public evaluation of EIA practices and results, a new journal article in Environmental Impact Assessment Review by a team of Boston University researchers presents an open-source approach for evaluating localized air pollution health impacts for BRI-financed coal-fired power plants. This analysis focuses on estimating attributable death from fine particulate matter (PM2.5), known to be major risk factor for premature deaths globally. Taking the case study of the Port Qasim Power Plant located near Karachi, Pakistan, the researchers simulated two main scenarios: a base case, assuming fully operational pollution control technologies and an alternative case assuming no controls. They then tracked the likely additional local deaths from stroke, ischemic heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Main findings:
  • In the alternative scenario, there are significant health risks for the surrounding community due to  their proximity to the power plant, with an additional 49 deaths estimated to occur annually in the study population.
  • In the base scenario with functioning pollutions controls, there were essentially no increases in mortality risks are attributable to the power plant.
  • Attributable mortality would fall by approximately 6,000 deaths annually if national standards were achieved in the study region. 

The study is notable for its open-source methodology that can be reproduced to measure the local effects of pollution from coal-fired power plants. It is also relevant for civil society organizations, who might want to critically evaluate assumptions and results presented within EIA documents and conduct on-going social monitoring of existing industrial facilities. While local organizations may not have all the skills required for replicating this approach, expertise likely exists within local academic organizations that could easily collaborate with other organizations to encourage further study and the synchronization of national laws on pollution.

Read the Journal Article Read the Blog