Newly Built CO2-Emitting Plants Outpace Closings

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Governments around the world may be enacting measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the energy industry isn’t on board with those goals, according to a new report from researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

Their report, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, says existing power plants fired by coal and gas will generate more than 300 billion tons of atmosphere-clogging carbon dioxide over the next 40 years.

They calculate that “committed” emissions — those coming from plants already in operation — will rise by about 4 percent each year as the industry builds even more coal- and gas-fired plants. Their study is the first to quantify the rate at which such emissions grow.

The report estimates that just the new plants built around the world in 2012 will emit 19 billion tons of carbon dioxide during their expected four decades of operation. That’s significantly more than the 14 billion tons of CO2 emissions produced by all the plants operating worldwide built before 2012.

The only way to reverse the trend is “retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build,” said Steven Davis, assistant professor of Earth system science at UCI and a co-author of the study.

The report explains that the United Nations, which keeps track of global carbon emissions, ignores capital investments in future power plants that commit to billions of tons of CO2 emissions over several decades.

“We are flying a plane that is missing a crucial dial on the instrument panel,” says Robert Socolow, a professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton. “[T]he only dial on our plane tells us about current emissions, not the emissions that current capital investments will bring about in future years.”

The Princeton-UCI report says the number of new power plants is outpacing the old ones being retired. Worse, it says, total remaining commitments in the worldwide power sector haven’t been reduced in a single year since 1950; in fact, they grew at an average rate of 4 percent per year between 2000 and 2012.

The main culprits are developing countries like China, India, and Indonesia. Power plants in China and India will be responsible for 42 percent and 8 percent, respectively, of committed future emissions.

Caps on emissions in the Western countries, meanwhile, are producing benefits, the report says. The United States, once the world’s leading polluter, is now responsible for only 11 percent of committed future emissions; in Europe, the figure is only 9 percent.

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