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

5% of World’s Power Plants Cause 73% of Power Sector's Emissions

A new study found that 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, and this study shows that addressing the inefficiency of the most high-polluting power plants could have a significant impact on reducing emissions. In the US we also know where our problem lies. The list of the biggest overall emitters is dominated by some of the biggest US 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%.

LA Times: Total CO2 emissions (2017) - List of Top Carbon Polluters. (Source: MJ Bradley & Associates.)

Sparking Action

The researchers hope this study will inspire activists and policymakers to go after their country's "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.

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 Agreement goals that limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Union of Concerned Scientists: Everything to Know About Coal (in Under 3 Minutes), January 4, 2018.

Center for Strategic & International Studies: Charting a Path for Just Transitions, March 10, 2021.