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New coal plants bury 'Kyoto'

New greenhouse-gas emissions from China, India, and the US will swamp cuts from the Kyoto treaty.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 2004

So much for Kyoto.

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The official treaty to curb greenhouse-gas emissions hasn't gone into effect yet and already three countries are planning to build nearly 850 new coal-fired plants, which would pump up to five times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce.

The magnitude of that imbalance is staggering. Environmentalists have long called the treaty a symbolic rather than practical victory in the fight against global warming. But even many of them do not appear aware of the coming tidal wave of greenhouse-gas emissions by nations not under Kyoto restrictions.

By 2012, the plants in three key countries - China, India, and the United States - are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to a Monitor analysis of power-plant construction data. In contrast, Kyoto countries by that year are supposed to have cut their CO2 emissions by some 483 million tons.

The findings suggest that critics of the treaty, including the Bush administration, may be correct when they claim the treaty is hopelessly flawed because it doesn't limit emissions from the developing world. But they also suggest that the world is on the cusp of creating a huge new infrastructure that will pump out enormous amounts of CO2 for the next six decades.

Without strong US leadership, it's unlikely that technology to cut CO2 emissions will be ready in time for the power-plant construction boom, many say.

"If all those power plants are online by 2012, then obviously it completely cancels out any gains from Kyoto," says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The reason for the dramatic imbalance is coal. Just a few years ago, economists and environmentalists still pictured a world shifting steadily from "dirty" coal-fired power plants to "cleaner" natural-gas turbines. But the fast-rising price of natural gas and other factors abruptly changed that picture. Now the world is facing a tidal wave of new power plants fired by coal, experts say. "China and India are building coal-fired capacity as fast as they can," says Christopher Bergesen, who tracks power plant construction for Platts, the energy publishing division of McGraw- Hill.

China is the dominant player. The country is on track to add 562 coal-fired plants - nearly half the world total of plants expected to come online in the next eight years. India could add 213such plants; the US, 72. (See chart below.)

Altogether, those three nations are set to add up to 327,000 megawatts by 2012 - three quarters of the new capacity in the global pipeline and roughly equal to the output of today's US coal-fired generating fleet.

The new coal plants from the three nations would burn about 900 million extra tons of coal each year. That, in turn, would emit in the neighborhood of 2.5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, Dr. Schmidt estimates.

"I'm not hugely optimistic we are going to slow the rate of carbon emission overall any time soon," says Schmidt of the Goddard institute. "If this sort of thing continues unchecked, we won't be arguing about climate change in 2100, because the changes will be all too obvious."

But several uncertainties remain. First, not all of the plants may be built. In the US, for example, local opposition may halt construction of some of the 100 coal-fired plants now in various stages of development. According to Mr. Bergesen's numbers, 72 plants could be added, the basis for the Monitor's estimates.

Another uncertainty: Slightly less than half of the new plants Platts forecasts for China and India have an official start date. If only those plants with start dates are built, then the expected emissions from the three nations would total only 1.2 billion tons of CO2, still more than double the required reduction from Kyoto. But that estimate is conservative, experts say, because Chinese and Indian leaders face few political barriers to power-plant construction and big demands for more power.

Efficiency a key

Although US coal-fired plants are far more efficient than those in China or India, all three countries, presumably, would install state-of-the-art technology. The Monitor's estimates are based on the assumption that the new plants in all three nations will be 10 percent more efficient than today's US average - a conservative estimate, experts say.