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5% of Earth’s Power Plants Create 73% of the Energy Sector’s Emissions

Power plants

Poland’s Belchatow plant. Image: G

Just 5 percent of power plants are responsible for 73 percent of the world’s energy sector emissions, and they’re primarily in the global north, a new study published in Environmental Research Letters found. 

A group of researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder analyzed 2018 data from 29,000 fossil fuel power plants in 221 countries and located the top emitters in the world. 

They mapped plants by their carbon dioxide emissions and identified the top 10 “ worst-of-the-worst” power plants, which are clustered around Europe, East Asia, and India. 

The world’s “super-emitters” have a few qualities in common: They are all coal-powered, they are primarily located in the global north and they all operate inefficiently for the amount of energy they generate. Focusing policy responses on mitigating the handful of the worst offenders would go a long way to curbing the climate crisis, the authors find. 

“One of the challenges climate activists face is determining who exactly is to blame for the climate crisis,” said Don Grant, coauthor on the paper and professor of sociology and fellow of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Our study begins to address this problem in identifying super polluters.” 

Beyond the 10 highest emitters, the plants that did the most damage to atmospheric warming were coal-powered ones broadly clustered in the US (in the eastern half of the country), Europe, India and East Asia. (Notably, none of the world’s highest emitters are located in South America, Africa or the Pacific, which constitute much of what’s widely considered the “Global South,” a region understood to bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change despite contributing very little to it.) 

Emissions from electricity generation would fall by 17 to 49 percent if these plants were updated for efficiency, offset by carbon capture, or shut off entirely.

Switching from coal and oil to natural gas would be a start, the authors say. Grant notes that he and his fellow researchers “also embrace renewables,” but are also wary that “some countries are not yet ready or willing to adopt that strategy.” Though widely cited by the industry as a “bridge fuel,” many environmentalists are now ditching the notion that natural gas is a clean alternative to other fossil fuels. Many believe shutting off fossil fuel power plants and switching to renewables is the only way to curb emissions enough to meet the International Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5-degree warming restriction recommendation to limit the worst effects of climate change. 

While the global power sector’s CO2 emissions have grown by 53 percent in the last two decades, not every country, nor every power plant is equally responsible for this burden: Six of the 10 worst polluting power plants in the world are located in East Asia, while two are in India and two are in Europe, all dwarfing total emissions among their counterparts in the same region.

Rogowiec, Poland is home to the highest polluting power plant in the world: The 27-year-old Bełchatów plant, responsible for some 20 percent of the country’s electricity, emitted 38 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018. Though the largest thermal power plant in Europe, its capacity is less than some of its lower-emitting counterparts in other parts of the world, the paper finds. (The country plans to shut the plant down by 2036, heeding calls to decarbonize its economy.)

Belchatow’s harm is rooted not in its output, but in its inefficiency: It has the highest intensity, or the highest emissions per unit, of the top emitters globally, Grant and his team found. In fact, all ten of the worst global emitters were less efficient than others in their home countries, emitting 28 to 76 percent more per unit of energy generated.

“Why these relatively inefficient plants are used so heavily is a topic ripe for future investigation,” the authors wrote. 

Despite having the largest economy in the world, none of the world’s top 10 worst polluting plants were located in the US; but the country is home to stark inequality between its highest and lowest emitting plants. Grant and his team used Gini Coefficients—a metric typically used to measure income and health inequality—to find differences between the highest emitters and average per-plant emissions in each country. In the US, the top five percent of polluters were responsible for nearly 80 percent of the country’s emissions from electricity, they found. 

A number of other countries show similar patterns, including South Korea, Japan and Australia, and crucially, all would see emissions reductions between 25 and 80 percent if they were to embrace modernization and fuel switches, the authors say.

Encouraging plants like Belchatow to improve their efficiency would reap big gains for nations striving to curb their emissions. But no policy solution is one-size-fits-all, Grant says. Some countries—South Korea, Germany, Japan and Australia, the authors found—may find more success in watching one or two mega-emitters, while others may see the same result by issuing sweeping sector-wide regulations.

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