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We need a rational and healthy energy policy

The suggestion that Fife's Longannet coal-fired power plant is a top polluter is not new.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) declared in October that it was one of the top two sources of carbon emissions in the country.

The argument put forward by the Brussels-based Health and Environment Alliance (Heal) is a little more nuanced. Its latest briefing looks at the health impact of burning fossil fuels across the UK.

It highlights Longannet and the Drax power station in North Yorkshire as having a major impact on the health of the nation at large and, in particular, on neighbouring communities.

By "belching out" thousands of tonnes of pollutants, including carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and particulates, Heal claims, the two plants are costing the NHS, in what it argues is an indirect subsidy to the industry. Such pollution has a direct cost in terms of lives lost to and medical treatment for heart and respiratory conditions.

It has a more indirect cost in terms of quality of life: a need for more treatment for asthma sufferers, for instance, and restrictions on those affected in terms of ability to work or to simply leave the house. Elderly people and children are most likely to be affected, the briefing says.

The report cites figures showing that the overall health cost from Longannet alone is estimated at a rather vague £310 million to £858m a year.

There is undoubtedly some truth in all of this. However, the coal industry has been quick to dispute the findings, claiming Heal is unaccountable and little more than a front for the green lobby. ScottishPower also insists that Longannet complies with emissions standards that are some of the toughest in Europe.

That does not diminish the power of Heal's argument.

But if we are to measure the health impact of fossil fuels we should be balanced. There are health risks on both sides.

Since the closure of Cockenzie Power Station, Longannet has been responsible for generating around one-quarter of all electricity used in Scotland. It provides hundreds of jobs directly on site, and ScottishPower argues it supports hundreds more in the wider community.

If it were to close, as some would prefer, there would be an inevitable impact on electricity prices. Fuel poverty also has a direct health cost.

Unemployment, as parts of Scotland know too well, has a significant impact upon health, so losing those jobs would be costly for the NHS too.

We need balance in our energy policy, and a rational mix of sources, including renewable energies and nuclear.

The central argument of the report is hard to disagree with, however. The role of coal power generation in accelerating climate change means that Europe ultimately needs to phase it out, it states.

We cannot go on ignoring warnings about climate change, and we must cut our dependence on fossil fuels. And until we can do so it is sensible to do all we can to cut the emissions from them.

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Health

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