Fossil power plants foil emissions targets | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 29.08.2014
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Environment

Fossil power plants foil emissions targets

We are building more fossil fuel power plants than ever before, leading to increased carbon dioxide emissions, a new study says. That's bad news for plans to keep global temperatures from rising.

Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine and Robert Socolow of Princeton University in the US, report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that existing power plants will emit 300 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during their lifetimes. In this century alone, emissions from these plants have grown by 4 percent per year.

The two scientists have already reported on the increasing costs of delay in phasing out fossil fuel sources of energy, notes the Climate News Network. Their latest research looks at the steady future accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from power stations.

Wind turbines in front of coal-fired power station

Wind and other renewables have still to overtake coal.

"Despite international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, total remaining commitments in the global power sector have not declined in a single year since 1950 and are in fact growing rapidly,” the report states.

Massive emissions already committed

Governments worldwide have in principle accepted that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced and average global warming limited to a rise of two degrees Celsius.

At the current pace though, scientists have warned that the world is on track for at least four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That could mean drastic rises in sea levels and catastrophic drought in some areas of the world.

"We are flying a plane that is missing a crucial dial on the instrument panel,” said Socolow. The needed dial would report committed emissions. Right now, as far as emissions are concerned, the only dial on our panel tells us about current emissions, not the emissions that capital investment will bring about in future years.”

In the latest study, scientists asked: once a power station is built, how much carbon dioxide will it emit, and for how long? They assumed a functioning lifetime of 40 years for a fossil fuel plant and then tallied the results.

The fossil fuel-burning stations built worldwide in 2012 alone will produce 19 billion tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes. The entire world production of the greenhouse gas from all of the world's working fossil fuel power stations in 2012 was 14 billion tons.

"Far from solving the problem of climate change, we're investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse," the experts stress.

The US and Europe between them account for 20 percent of committed emissions, but these commitments have been declining in recent years. Facilities in China and India account for 42 percent and 8 percent respectively of all committed future emissions, and these are rapidly growing in number. Two-thirds of emissions are from coal-burning stations ad the share from gas-fired stations had risen to 27 percent by 2012.

Fossil fuel wind-down not fast enough

Davis says more fossil fuel-burning facilities have to be retired than new ones built. "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 added.

According to Socolow, 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,” he said.

The current draft of a summary report to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due to be released in November warns of "severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” unless carbon emissions are brought under control.

The IPCC stresses that human-induced climate change will lead to the devastation of homes and property, a scarcity of food and water and human mass migration, as sea levels rise through warming temperatures and melting ice.

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