National Geographic News
Carbon dioxide emissions from stacks at a coal-fired power plant in England.

Power plants like this coal-fired facility in England are already committing the globe to future carbon emissions that haven't previously been accounted for in climate models, say the authors of a new study.

Photograph by Jason Hawkes, National Geographic Creative

Joe Eaton

for National Geographic

Published August 26, 2014

The world's existing power plants are on track to pour more than 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and current monitoring standards often fail to take these long-term emissions into account, according to new research from scientists at UC Irvine and Princeton University.

The paper, published Tuesday in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters, is the first to estimate the lifetime carbon emissions of power plants globally over multiple years.

The drive to meet the world's ever-growing energy demand means that global power sector commitments—the projected lifetime carbon emissions of currently working power plants—have not declined in a single year since 1950. These so-called committed emissions are growing at about 4 percent a year, according to the study, and in 2012 reached 307 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

The study comes as the United States is attempting for the first time to regulate emissions from existing power plants, a proposal the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced several weeks ago and aims to finalize by next June. (See related: "Four Key Takeaways From EPA's New Rules for Power Plants.")

The researchers suggest that current United Nations accounting methods, which chart annual carbon dioxide discharge, should also tally the projected lifetime emissions of power plants to provide a more accurate picture of their impact on global warming. (See related interactive map: Global Greenhouse Gas Footprints)

"International efforts all center on what we emit every year, but that misses the point," said Steven Davis, an earth system scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and the study's co-author. "We have information about what is coming in the future." Davis wrote the paper with Robert Socolow of Princeton, known for his theory that a series of environmental steps that cut greenhouse gas, which he called wedges, could together flatline carbon emissions. (See related: "Climate Scientist Fears His 'Wedges' Made It Seem Too Easy")

More and More Fossil Fuel Power

The study reflects international trends in investment in coal-burning power plants, with construction of coal-fired power plants slowing in the West since the 1980s but increasing in China, India, and other areas of the developing world.

"There is a global effort to reduce carbon dioxide, but it is actually increasing at a shocking rate," Davis said. "When you build a power plant, it is going to stick around for 40 to 50 years and emit a lot of CO2."

In 2012, China's power sector represented 42 percent of worldwide committed emissions, 98 percent of which were tied to coal, the authors found. Plants in the United States and Europe together accounted for 20 percent. That share of lifetime carbon emissions has declined in the United States since the late 1980s, in part due to the shift from coal-burning power plants to plants fueled by natural gas, but also because the power infrastructure is not expanding. Levels remained steady in Europe.

The study found that lifetime emissions from China's power plants have experienced a less rapid increase since the country's 2006 peak. Although China continues to build power plants, they are not being built as rapidly as in the recent past, Davis said.

However, China is "passing the torch" to other industrializing countries—including Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—which are ramping up their power sectors, often by building new coal plants. (See related interactive map: The Global Electricity Mix)

Faulty Emissions Accounting

The study presents a bleak look at international efforts to prevent global warming while it questions the accounting used to tally emissions to meet climate treaties.

The authors found that lifetime carbon emissions from currently operating power plants represent a substantial portion of what is allowed for in climate models to prevent global temperatures from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius from the preindustrial era—the current international target.

The emissions from existing power plants in China and the United States, for example, represent 53 and 21 percent, respectively, of each nation's carbon budget to meet its carbon target from all sources, according to the study.

Dave Hawkins, director of climate programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the study illustrates a concept environmental advocates have talked about for years.

By focusing almost exclusively on annual emissions, the international community has disregarded the impact of investment in new power plants fired by fossil fuels, Hawkins said.

"It's like driving a car and looking out the driver's window at the ground passing by rather than looking out the windshield," Hawkins said.

The study did not factor in proposed EPA regulations to limit carbon emissions, and Davis said the regulations would likely have little impact on lifetime power plant emissions in the study. The average age of U.S. power plants is 36, Davis said. The study estimated a 40-year lifespan for power plants, so there is little time for new proposals to influence emissions considered in the study. (Vote and comment: "What Energy Solution Should We Develop Next?")

Although carbon commitments are growing at a rapid rate, Davis said projected emission rates are not set in stone. If the plants are retrofitted with carbon capture technology or retired early, emissions would fall, Davis said, although he thinks this is unlikely.

"Most people have the common-sense understanding that once you build a billion-dollar power plant, you don't just shut it off because the climate is getting too warm," he said.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

27 comments
Gannett Gannett
Gannett Gannett

some of us knows nothing about what's going on in these developing countres and what  the resident in these region are suffering.

Indeed, developing country  are responsible for the polution, but there are not too much option on the table. 

cyril deons vithali
cyril deons vithali

demand for energy is increasing day by day.that will continue.it has become difficult to convince governments as well as beneficiaries/consumers to rely on clean/dirty sources of energy.

kami krazee
kami krazee

Nuclear power has been villainized for a variety of reasons, most valid but overblown to some degree.

The situation that we are in requires that we also look at potential solutions with the most manageable ramifications as well as an "all-or-nothing' end, as we do now.     Wind, solar, hydroelectric, while clean and good, are not and will not be sufficient to supply our needs, and our culture is not willing to change or adapt enough, even in the face of catastrophe.

An honest dialogue on atomic power, and how to deal with the waste, as opposed to how to deal with the waste from fossil fuels might yield results.

Not good, but we are out of time.     We have some idea of how to deal with nuclear issues, not so much with fossil wastes, (gasses etc).    Let's try it.


ADVENTURE MAN C.
ADVENTURE MAN C.

We are too smart of a country to be putting 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we need to take care of the planet God gave us and start taking responsibility for our part in global warming and then FIX THE PROBLEM.

David Jones
David Jones

More accurate monitoring makes sense, especially if it is more granular. Then instead policies that punish an entire industry and its customers, it would be possible to identify specific investments at key facilities that would have a measurable benefit.


It would be interesting to see the assumptions, estimates and "rounding" that went into the models used in the study, in order to assess the assertions merits.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

It just keeps getting better. Regarding the, "Global warming/Climate change" issues to which this article relates and dealing with the mitigation of such as well as dealing with the problems already created by such, as well as in general, please indulge me a moment and then I will post no more to this article;

I love this country, mostly for our people, but boy we better smart'n up. This is not the US I was born into. While nations around the world are at least making efforts, making use of and developing the technologies available, we are essentially sitting around with our thumbs up our you know what. You see what is coming don't you, we are going to keep beating around the bush until we have no choice and end up IMPORTING the technologies and systems from other countries, who by the time we pull the thumb out, will have them, "on the shelf". We should be, EXPORTING!

What is going on with our beloved country, POLITICIANS, for crying out loud, WAKE UP! INDUSTRY, instead of worrying about selling you outdated wares while the selling is good, INOVATE take the freakin' lead, get off your duff.

Where did our PASSION for EXCELLENCE go? Does anyone remember the, "Space race", we WON that one. We were a country that REFUSED to settle or strive for anything less than #1.

I look around these days and I hardly recognize the place. 

Mojtaba Najafy
Mojtaba Najafy

I think UN should bring this matter to the up front and gain the required authority to meddle with matters related to carbon emission. We also need some international large companies that could provide high-tech means, like carbon capture technology mentioned here, that are also as economical as possible so that countries would accept contracting with them. Controlling carbon emission now could save us hell lot of unpredictable troubles that lie ahead of us.

Doug L
Doug L

how is carbon sequestration technology coming?

William Glenn
William Glenn

I see one smoke stack and 8(?) convection cooling towers. The cooling towers are emitting water vapor (steam). Not CO2. 

Harry Rossignol
Harry Rossignol

"Most people have the common-sense understanding that once you build a billion-dollar power plant, you don't just shut it off because the climate is getting too warm,"


Most people who look closely at energy also realize that the economics  of a plant changes over time.


I.E. In the US Oil fired electricity plants that were designed and built for 'intermediate load' service haven't been run as 'intermediate load' plants in 30 years...which is substantially different then the original intent.


The price of coal on global markets had been declining relative to inflation for pretty much a century up to about 2006...and has since reversed.


Doing a study on a 100 year trend and not taking into account that the trend reversed almost a decade ago doesn't tend to yield 'realistic' results.


The Chinese will almost certainly need 1,000 GW's of baseload, 1,000 GW's of intermediate load and 1,000 GW of peak load capacity by 2030.


Saying with any certainty what role the existing capacity will play in 2030 when they have triple the capacity of today is pure speculation...nothing more.

craig hill
craig hill

A rise of 2 degrees centigrade is GUARANTEED by the 2040s without massive reductions in CO2 emissions. The science has already spoken; it's simple math. Guess when it hits + 2 it'll be necessary for everyone to have air conditioning. +2 = too hot for plants to grow, btw. The human race slinks with a yawn toward self-extinction.

Jan Podkowinski
Jan Podkowinski

nice photography , but – in my opinion - the structures on the picture are cooling towers and  not smoking chimneys. When humid and warm air released from the towers is cooled down by the atmospheric air the steam condensates into very small drops forming cloudy looking “smoke”

Justin Smith
Justin Smith

You can bemoan CO2 emissions and climate change all you want. Until China, India and the other large population/industrializing countries jump on board, NOTHING we do  in the US and Europe will make a bit of difference. 



Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@William Glenn  The smoke you see from the, "smokestack" is not CO2 either. CO2 is invisible. If it weren't, I think you'd be surprised to see what is coming out of that, "smokestack" and cars and homes and factories. Maybe that's what we should do, find a coloring agent that attaches itself to the CO2 molecule so that one can see it. I guarantee you one thing, people would then sit up and take notice. On second thought maybe not.

Guy Holder
Guy Holder

@craig hill  Where do you get your information from? That's one of the most ridiculous comments I've ever seen. There's not a single authoritative body that suggests we could see a 2C rise by the 2040's.

It's pretty clear you haven't put any real time into this. Stands to reason given the Yale study that found the more educated one is the more sceptical they are.

This article about data manipulation is only the latest example of a 25 year fraud.

http://bit.ly/1C8r57h

Justin Smith
Justin Smith

@craig hill I live in the subtropics. If it would warm up a bit more I could grow some really cool tropical fruit. 

craig hill
craig hill

@Justin Smith Without the US and Europe, cumulatively the biggest CO2 emitters, NOTHING China and India do will make a bit of difference: Everybody dies because US and Europe make no effort to reduce.

Gerard Van der Leun
Gerard Van der Leun

@Justin Smith NatGeo lifewasters know this. They are only in it for the piddling paychecks except for those at the top of and drinking from this particular sewer. Sad really. No ideals. Nothing but slop.

Robert Aldous
Robert Aldous

@Justin Smith @craig hill It's more than just a temperature increase. +2 temperature = more wild weather (wind, cyclones, tornadoes, storms, floods) more droughts and less rain.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@craig hill @Justin Smith  Hey there Craig. Keep fighting the good fight. I'm new to blogging and certainly did not expect to find the ignorance that abounds when it comes to the issue of Global warming and related. As you know, from past blogs, I agree with  your positions, maybe a mite to varying degrees and I'm not quite so extreme on the views we share, but overall it seems we are on the same page. The only real difference is that I want(ed) to be a bit more optimistic than you tend to be. Well, each day that goes by, each day that we dig the hole deeper, each day there is another voice saying, "Don't worry 'bout it", is another day closer to realizing just how fruitless it all appears to be. Even amongst those who accept the fact that man is largely responsible for the predicament, (understatement) we find ourselves in, there are many who do not see the urgency, or think we'll find a way to flip a switch and it will all go away overnight.

Initially my reaction to your point of view was, this fellow is grounded in reality, but why is he so negative? With that being said, I understand your pessimism more each passing day. So while we are still around, I toast your efforts, at least people like yourself can say, "I tried".

Be well.

Justin Smith
Justin Smith

@craig hill @Justin Smith Thank you for making my point. Nothing any of us do individually will make any difference!  


We have to get every nation in on the solution.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@Gerard Van der Leun @Justin Smith  From reading your past blogs, sounds to me like someone has a personal vendetta against NatGeo, and through comment is expressing such, for no other reason than personal vengeance. Disgruntled past employee? No ideals, nothing but slop, sounds like your observations. "Sour grapes?"

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@Justin Smith It is us, the US, who should be taking the lead on this and we are not. Just look at how paralyzed we seem to be trying to come to terms with the drought going on out West. Until we start making a concerted effort to clean up our own house, there is little chance that other counties are going to listen to a word we have to say.The days of, "Do as I say and not as I do" are long gone. For the most part, we are still doing nothing but talking about it.


Sum Dude
Sum Dude

@Justin Smith Thanks to the link to the Luddite website (oh, the irony) from  2008.


Firstly, yes creating solar panels carries a carbon footprint, as does every human endeavor. The payback period, according to the DOE range between one and four years. (http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy04osti/35489.pdf)

I'd dare say that any fossil fuel energy generation device is inferior.


The ill-informed part would be pretty much the whole thing. You see, developing countries are on board. This year, China installed the equivalent of Australia's entire solar capacity in the first six months, and plans to keep increasing that momentum. http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2014/08/china-installs-equivalent-of-australias-total-solar-capacity-in-six-months


I could go on about the efforts of many countries, including the U.S., but my main point is that we don't need to wait for anyone else to displace the majority of our fossil fuel energy generation. As I mentioned in my original comment (with supporting URL), we can make up in health saving more than we spend on the effort.


As well, U.S. companies could gain by exploiting gains in production efficiencies , along with product breakthroughs to lead the global market. Something that would not happen if we were to just sit back and wait for others to act.


Recent Energy News

See More at The Great Energy Challenge »

The Big Energy Question

Share Your Opinion »

The Great Energy Challenge

The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.

Energy News, Blog and Interactive Features »