Existing power plants around the world will pump out more than 300 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over their expected lifetimes, significantly adding to atmospheric levels of the climate-warming gas, according to a study.
The research is the first to quantify how quickly emissions are growing, by about 4% a year, as more fossil fuel-burning power plants are built.
The findings by the University of California Irvine (UCI) and Princeton University appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters
Assuming the stations will operate for 40 years, the power plants constructed globally in 2012 alone will produce about 19 billion tons of CO2 during their existence.
“Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build,” said Steven Davis, assistant professor of Earth system science at UCI and the study’s lead author.
“But worldwide, we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion.
“Far from solving the climate change problem, we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse.”
According to the study, the CO2 emissions from existing power plants represents a substantial portion of the emissions budget which would keep global temperatures from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius relative to the pre-industrial era – the current international target.
Power plants now operating in the US and Europe account for about 11% and 9% of committed emissions.
Increasing worldwide commitments, therefore, reflect the rapid growth of China’s power sector since 1995, as well as new facilities in such developing countries as India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Plants in China and India represent 42% and 8% of committed future emissions.
About two-thirds of these emissions from the power sector are due to coal-burning stations.
“We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments,” said Socolow, professor emeritus of mechanical & aerospace engineering.
“Current conventions for reporting data and presenting scenarios for future action need to give greater prominence to these investments. Such a rebalancing of attention will reveal the relentlessness of coal-based industrialization, long underway and showing no sign of abating.”
Watch Steven Davis discussing the study here.
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