Environment

Climate targets warrant closure of all gas, coal power plants soon, study shows

Climate targets gas coal power plants

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June 11, 2020

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Published:

June 11, 2020

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If solutions to turn emissions negative aren’t scaled up substantially in the mid-term to cap global warming, there is little choice but to decommission facilities for the production of electricity from fossil fuels at roughly half of their lifespans. International climate treaties and goals imply gas and coal power plants must be decommissioned 10 to 30 years before schedule, researchers wrote.

Even without new facilities and excluding the impact of oil-fired power plants, the existing electricity generation capacities running on other fossil fuels would produce 220 gigatons more carbon dioxide, CO2, before planned decommissioning than what is compatible with the most ambitious goals for global temperature, scientists said.

A team from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California (Irvine) found climate targets expressed in greenhouse gas emissions depend at the moment on a very early shutdown of all power plants utilizing gas and coal.

The surplus of 220 gigatons of CO2 is for the rise in temperature from pre-industrial times limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. In the current setting, there would still be 188 gigatons too much for the easier goal, two degrees, according to the paper published in Environmental Research Letters.

The study excludes planned thermal power plants, oil generators and the effect of potential solutions to turn emissions negative

Coal power plants usually last 39 years, compared to 36 for gas units. If they keep working until the end, even a three-degree target would be missed, as the surplus was calculated at 112 gigatons of CO2.

Generators on oil make up less than 5% of electricity capacity. Without substantial negative emissions, for instance via the still undeveloped carbon capture technology, a massive contribution would be required from other industries.

Otherwise, climate targets warrant the decommissioning gas and coal power plants of between ten and 30 years before schedule, the study shows. The scenario was produced from 171 integrated assessment models with six major trajectories.

If they reach the end of their lifespans, just the currently active thermal power plants that use coal and natural gas would leave a carbon surplus for the climate even relative to the goal of three degrees Celsius

Private investors and governments count on trillions of dollars from current thermal power systems, warns the team led by Steven Davis. It pointed to huge social and economic implications from the cost of retiring the plants much earlier even without the challenge to replace them in time to keep meeting demand. Even the stability of the financial system is seen at stake.

China would account for the largest effect from premature shutdowns, given that half of the active coal-fired plants are located there and they are relatively new. The environmental cost of keeping those facilities working in line with the schedule in the United States would be 26% lower than in the most populous nation, followed by India (53%) and Western Europe (87%).

Half of the current coal capacities are in China and its power plants are much newer than in the US, India and Western Europe

The researchers highlighted policies like public incentives for early closure or limits to operating hours, charging carbon emissions, disallowing major maintenance or subsidizing non-emitting technologies.

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