The challenge of curbing global carbon emissions can seem insurmountable. But a new study of global power-plant pollution suggests that enormous reductions could be achieved by targeting a small number of “hyper-polluting” facilities. Just 5 percent of the world’s power plants — all of them coal fired — produce a staggering 73 percent of the global electricity sector’s carbon emissions. And if these plants were simply converted to burn natural gas, the world’s electricity emissions could be slashed by close to one third.
The new study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, began with a data-set of nearly 30,000 power plants across 221 countries. It found that “the plants that did the most absolute damage to the atmosphere” were coal plants that were “clustered in the United States, Europe, India, and East Asia,” with the world’s ten-worst polluting plants located in Poland, Germany, India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and northern China.
The research reveals that these plants’ extreme emissions are not just a factor of scale, with the biggest plants producing the most pollution. Rather the hyper polluters were just a lot dirtier, overall, because they relied on low-quality coal or were aging and inefficient — or both. Relative to the average emissions intensity of fossil-fuel facilities in each country, these plants “emitted carbon at a rate 28.2 percent to 75.6 percent higher.” The worst plant studied was a 27-year-old facility located in Belchatow, Poland, which belched nearly 38 million tons of CO2 in 2018, burning a low-quality fuel known as brown coal from a neighboring mine, with an emissions intensity nearly 1.8 times worse than Poland’s national average.
Across the globe, the study revealed that the worst 5 percent of power plants “contributed 73 percent of all electricity-based CO2 discharges.” This pattern of extreme outlier plants holds true everywhere, with some of the worst relative offenders in highly developed countries like the United States, Japan, and Australia, where the worst 5 percent of plants emit can produce up to 89 percent of electricity-based emissions.
This phenomenon of hyper-polluting coal plants offers policymakers obvious targets for action. The study finds that extreme emissions reductions are possible in relatively short order by converting to natural gas. “The world’s total electricity-based CO2 emissions could be reduced by as much as 29.50 percent should extreme emitters be required to use gas,” which the study’s authors deem “the most available and efficient mitigation option.” If these plants were required to integrate carbon capture technology, up to a 48.9 percent reduction in the global electrical sector’s emissions is possible.
Lead author Don Grant of the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells Rolling Stone he’s encouraged by this research. “The climate crisis often seems overwhelming and the product of impersonal forces beyond our control,” he says. “The good news is that we can make swift and significant cuts in CO2 emissions simply by targeting the lowest hanging fruit – super polluting power plants.”