Deaths related to emissions from coal cost the UK economy between £2.47bn and £7.15bn in 2013, according to a comprehensive overview of coal production in Europe.

The figure, which includes mortality costs from coal-related respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, such as heart disease and lung cancer is linked to the 395 kilotons of pollutants emitted by UK coal plants. Europe as a whole had equivalent mortality costs of between €21bn and €60.6bn, according to the authors.

The report, from the NGO umbrella group Climate Action Network Europe (Cane), also found that the UK was the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide from coal burning after Germany and Poland.

“The British government has not caught up with reality,” Kathrin Gutmann, Cane’s coal policy coordinator told the Guardian. “It urgently needs a proactive strategy to manage a coal phase out. Energy utilities are already starting to spend billions of euros to shed some of their coal plants but governments like the UK are just hiding behind this power sector transformation.”

Last month, Germany began a process of mothballing its largest coal plants. The new survey says that it is still Europe’s biggest coal subsidiser though, coughing up €30bn between 1999 and 2011.

In the UK, coal was responsible for some 87 million tonnes of CO2 emissions last year – 16% of all the country’s greenhouse gas output – a figure eight times higher than in France.

Cane calculated the health costs by mapping Europe’s 280 coal power plants and then multiplying their polluting emissions by the European Environment Agency’s estimate of the cost of mortality associated with those emissions. The range of figures reflects different estimates of the cost to the economy of individual deaths.

Julia Huscher, the coal officer for Health and Environment Alliance said that the new overview provided the first snapshot of how individual countries were contributing to Europe’s trans-boundary air pollution problem.

“We can now see that British power plants are responsible for very substantial emissions of classic air pollutants – nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides – and for the average European, that translates into more chronic illnesses like bronchitis, heart disease and asthma, and more premature deaths,” she said.

UK air quality has been in breach of EU standards for years and an estimated 29,000 Britons die prematurely each year from long-term exposure to air pollution. That figure includes emissions from vehicles. In April the supreme court ordered the government to produce a plan for tackling the air pollution problem.

That plan is due to be presented this month, but environmental lawyers say that the roll-back of green policies could delay the clean up of Britain’s skies. Since the election, the UK has cut renewable energy subsidy schemes.

Alan Andrews, a lawyer for Client Earth said: “While the Department of Food and Rural Affairs is furiously working away on their air quality plans, there seems to be a clear disconnect and lack of joined up thinking with other government departments going in the opposite direction and rolling back policies that will have a negative effect towards this toxic soup of pollution, which is harming the health of people in the UK.”

Coal emits more CO2 for the amount of energy produced than gas and oil but it still makes up over a third of the country’s energy supply, although its percentage of the UK’s generation mix was slightly down last year.

Because the vast majority of British pits were closed down in the 1980s and 90s, this coal has to be imported. In 2013, Russia supplied around a third of the UK’s stockpile, with the US, Colombia and other countries also contributing.

  • This article was amended on 10 September. It originally stated that the upper limit for healthcare costs was £9.8bn in the UK and €88bn for the whole of Europe. That has now been corrected and the text has been changed to clarify that these costs relate to mortality and not healthcare.

Arthur Nelsen in Brussels

This article first appeared in the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie