New Study Finds 5% of World’s Power Plants Cause 73% of Power Sector’s Emissions

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

A new study has found a mere 5% of the world’s power plants are responsible for 73% of emissions released from energy generation.  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 found the world’s top emitters: six of these plants are in China and East Asia, two are in Europe, and two are in India. The world’s “super-emitters” are all coal-powered, tend to be in the global north, and run inefficiently for the amount of energy they generate. 

Why This Matters: Electricity generation is the largest contributor to the world’s greenhouse emissions, but this study shows that immediately addressing the most egregious power plants could have an outsize impact on reducing emissions. In the United States we also know where our problem lie. The list of the biggest overall emitters is dominated by some of the biggest U.S. power companies, including North Carolina-based Duke Energy, Atlanta’s Southern Co., and American Electric Power of Columbus, Ohio.

If the highest emitting power plants were made more efficient, added new carbon captures, or changed fuels, the researchers calculate that emissions from the world’s electricity production could drop between 17% and 49%.

Sparking Action: The researchers hope this study will inspire activists and policymakers to go after their countries’ “super-emitters.” 

It could be used by climate activists to organize more protests aimed at particular plants and their parent companies,” Don Grant, sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of the paper, told Fast Company.It could be used as part of a legal strategy that seeks to hold particular plants liable for the disproportionate pollution they create. Replacing or retrofitting super polluting power plants could be the centerpiece of major infrastructure projects. For countries that are not yet ready or willing to shift to renewables, these data provide some alternative mitigation strategies.”

These changes have already begun. The world’s highest emitting power plant—a coal plant in Rogowiec, Poland— will be shut down by 2036 as a result of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. There’s still more to do, especially since that deadline is over a decade away, and nations are struggling to meet Paris Climate Agreement goals that limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

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