power plant
August 28, 2014

Existing Power Plants Will Produce 300 Billion Tons Of Future Emissions

John Hopton for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Existing power plants worldwide will be responsible for 300 billion tons of future carbon dioxide emissions, with fossils fuels (particularly coal) still proving dominant in energy production. A new study from scientists at Princeton and UC Irvine says that continuing investment in these kinds of power plants makes our targets for controlling climate change questionable.

The researchers, whose findings appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters, say that we can assume a considerable increase in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. According to a recent statement, the researchers predict power plants built in 2012 alone will produce about 19 billion tons of CO2 emissions over their lifetime, which is expected to be around 40 years. A significant figure when compared to the 14 billion tons from all plants that were already operating in that same year.

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“Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build,” says 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.”

He adds that “Far from solving the climate change problem, we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse.” The result is that we are looking at a 4 percent increase in "committed emissions" - the projected carbon emissions of currently established power plants throughout their lifespan.

Power plants that use coal are responsible for around two-thirds of emissions related to power production. Natural gas-fired generators emit less CO2 per unit of energy, but coal remains the preferred choice of industrializing nations. Plants in China represent 42 percent of committed future emissions, with plants in India accounting for 8 percent. Other developing countries such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Iran are also significantly investing in fossil fuel power generation.

The CO2 emissions that will be produced by existing power plants represent a considerable portion of the international emissions budget, which has the aim of keeping global temperatures from increasing no more than 2 degrees Celsius relative to the preindustrial era.

According to David Hawkins, director of Climate Programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, "Without commitment accounting, we are like the dieter who makes a pledge to eat better while buying 20 gallons of rich ice cream and a new freezer.”

The study researchers hope to prompt policymakers to consider the long-term impact on climate of current infrastructure investments. “We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves," says Princeton's Robert Socolow, professor emeritus of mechanical & aerospace engineering and co-author of the study. “A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments. 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.”