Just 5 Percent of Power Plants Release 73 Percent of Global Electricity Production Emissions

Targeting the world’s worst emitters could offer disproportionate benefits when it comes to fighting climate change

Belchatow Power Station
Poland's coal-fired Belchatow Power Station released 38 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2018. BiLK-Thorn via FotoPolska under CC BY-SA 2.0

Cleaning up or shutting down the world’s “hyper-polluting” power plants could yield big gains in the race to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The study found that a mere five percent of the 29,000 power plants it surveyed were responsible for 73 percent of the planet’s emissions of carbon dioxide produced by the electricity generation sector, Nature reports.

Researchers ranked the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel power plants by combing through 2018 emissions data for 29,000 plants in 221 countries. The results revealed the ten worst offenders were inefficient coal-fired power plants located in East Asia, Europe and India, reports Audrey Carleton for Vice.

“One of the challenges climate activists face is determining who exactly is to blame for the climate crisis,” study author Don Grant, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells Vice. “Our study begins to address this problem in identifying super polluters.”

The power plant with the highest greenhouse gas emissions is the 27-year-old Bełchatów plant in Poland. The plant produces 20 percent of Poland’s electricity, but does so by burning an especially dirty form of coal known as lignite or brown coal. Despite being Europe’s biggest coal plant, Bełchatów’s inefficiency means its capacity to generate electricity is actually lower than smaller, lower-emissions plants elsewhere in the world, according to Vice. In 2018, the plant belched 38 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is more CO2 than the entire country of New Zealand emitted that same year. Fortunately, Poland plans to shut down Bełchatów by 2036.

The researchers behind the study also estimated the emissions reductions that might result if the dirtiest five percent of super polluting plants cleaned up their acts. Per Nature, super emitters could reduce their contributions to climate change by 25 percent by increasing their operating efficiency to match the global average. Switching from coal or oil to natural gas would net a 30 percent emissions reduction, and tacking on carbon-capture technologies might slash the greenhouse gases these dirty, inefficient plants emit by almost 50 percent.

“The climate crisis often seems overwhelming and the product of impersonal forces beyond our control,” Grant, who is also the author of the 2020 book Super Polluters: Tackling the World’s Largest Sites of Climate-Disrupting Emissions, tells Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone. “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.”

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