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Just 5% of power plants are responsible for 73% of electricity emissions

By targeting a small segment of power plants, we could make a big dent in global carbon emissions.

Just 5% of power plants are responsible for 73% of electricity emissions
Belchatow Power Station, Rogowiec, Poland. [Photo: Omar Marques/Getty Images]
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Each year, a sprawling coal power plant in Rogowiec, Poland, emits more CO2 than many countries—in 2018, roughly 38 million metric tons. It’s the most polluting power plant in the world. It’s also one of a relatively small number of power plants globally that are responsible for the majority of CO2 emissions from making electricity.

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In a new study, researchers combed through emissions data from more than 29,000 fossil fuel power plants in 221 countries to identify the biggest polluters, building on a book published last year, Super Polluters: Tackling the World’s Largest Sites of Climate-Disrupting Emissions. The top 5% of polluters, they found, were responsible for 73% of electricity-sector emissions. Six of the plants are in China and other parts of East Asia, two are in India, and two are in Europe.

Study coauthor Don Grant, a professor of sociology and fellow of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, says that it was striking “how a small set of plants could have such a disproportionate impact on electricity-based carbon pollution.” Focusing on changes at those plants, then, could also have a disproportionate impact on shrinking emissions.

Open freight cars full of coal at Czechowice-Dziedzice, Poland. [Photo: Omar Marques/Getty Images]
The list of super polluters could help guide activists and policy; countries also could use the analysis to target the most polluting plants in their own borders, even if they aren’t at the top of the global list. “It could be used by climate activists to organize more protests aimed at particular plants and their parent companies,” Grant says. “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.”

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Some changes are already underway. In Poland, for example, the coal power plant in Rogowiec now plans to shut down by 2036, after environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the coal plant operator (Poland also realized that the plant wouldn’t be financially viable). Still, that’s more than a decade away—and after the world is predicted to blow the “carbon budget” left to keep global warming under 35 degrees (1.5 degrees Celsius) and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

In cases where plants won’t close in the near future, the report suggests that other changes could still make a significant difference. If the worst-polluting power plants got efficiency upgrades, new carbon capture additions, or switched to different fuel, the researchers calculate that emissions from the world’s electricity production could drop between 17% and 49%. That’s a very big deal: Making electricity is the single largest contributor to climate emissions.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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