Forget the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." Disregard rising public concern over global warming. Ignore the Kyoto Protocol.
The world certainly is – at least when it comes to building new electric-power plants. In the past five years, it has been on a coal-fired binge, bringing new generators online at a rate of better than two per week. That has added some 1 billion tons of new carbon-dioxide emissions that humans pump into the atmosphere each year. Coal-fired power now accounts for nearly a third of human-generated global CO2 emissions.
So what does the future hold? An acceleration of the buildup, according to a Monitor analysis of power-industry data. Despite Kyoto limits on greenhouse gases, the analysis shows that nations will add enough coal-fired capacity in the next five years to create an extra 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year.
Those accelerating the buildup are not the usual suspects.
Take China, which is widely blamed for the rapid rise in greenhouse-gas emissions. Indeed, China accounted for two-thirds of the more than 560 coal-fired power units built in 26 nations between 2002 and 2006. The Chinese plants boosted annual world CO2 emissions by 740 million tons (see chart). But in the next five years, China is slated \to slow its buildup by half, according to industry estimates, adding 333 million tons of new CO2 emissions every year. That's still the largest increase of any nation. But other nations appear intent on catching up.
"Really, it's been the story of what China is doing," says Steve Piper, managing director of power forecasting at Platts, the energy information division of McGraw-Hill that provided country-by-country power-plant data to the Monitor. "But it's also a story of unabated global growth in coal-fired power. We're seeing diversification away from pricier natural gas and crude oil. Coal looks cheap and attractive - and countries with coal resources see an opportunity that wasn't there before."
For example, the United States is accelerating its buildup dramatically. In the past five years it built 2.7 gigawatts of new coal-fired generating capacity. But in the next five years, it is slated to add 37.7 gigawatts of capacity, enough to produce 247.8 million tons of CO2 per year, according to Platts. That would vault the US to second place –just ahead of India – in adding new capacity.
Even nations that have pledged to reduce global warming under the Kyoto treat are slated to accelerate their buildup of coal-fired plants. For example, eight EU nations – Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic – plan to add nearly 13 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity by 2012. That's up from about 2.5 gigawatts over the past five years.
In all, at least 37 nations plan to add coal-fired capacity in the next five years – up from the 26 nations that added capacity during the past five years. With Sri Lanka, Laos, and even oil-producing nations like Iran getting set to join the coal-power pack, the world faces the prospect five years from now of having 7,474 coal-fired power plants in 79 countries pumping out 9 billion tons of CO2 emissions annually – out of 31 billion tons from all sources in 2012.
"These numbers show how far in the wrong direction the world is poised to go and indicate a lot of private sector investors still don't get it in terms of global warming," says David Hawkins, climate center director of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "This rapid building of global-warming machines – which is what coal-power plants are – should be a wakeup call to politicians that we're driving ever faster toward the edge of the cliff."
But the cliff can be avoided, some researchers say, without having to reduce the world's energy consumption.
If carbon dioxide gas could be captured at power plants and then pumped underground and permanently "sequestered" in layers of rock, then coal might continue to be used without damaging the climate, concluded a major report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released last week.
In that light, whether or not China decides to build power plants that sequester carbon dioxide underground will be a central question. Right now, based on those power plants that Platt's has been able to verify, overall construction growth could be tapering off. But none of them is expected to sequester emissions – and estimates of how many plants China expects to build vary widely.
So far there are 100 power plants with firm construction plans compared to 361 built in the previous five years, according to Platts. But other analysts, pointing to official government reports, say the total may be far higher.
Chinese government reports, for instance, tout coal-power plant building far in excess of what Platt's and others have been able to verify – about 170 gigawatts of new coal-power over the past three years, according to China expert Philip Andrews-Speed, director of the Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy at the University of Dundee in Scotland.
"If the Chinese are right then it's a much worse problem than we might think," says Christopher Bergesen, a Platts expert who oversees power-plant data collection. He acknowledges Platts data may be a conservative base line for China. But until China reveals plant-specific data, not just aggregate numbers, he and other researchers can't be sure how fast China is building power plants that spur global warming.
That leaves climate scientists and policy experts wondering how to influence power-plant construction in China and India. A huge factor is whether the EU and the US are able to persuade the Chinese to build plants that capture and sequester CO2. Much depends on the US because China is unlikely to sequester its carbon dioxide if the US does not, analysts say.
"The Chinese won't be able to go forward by themselves," says Dr. Andrews-Speed. "They are going to need, EU, Japan, and US together to help them and set a good example."
Right now, the US is planning to build more than 150 coal-fired power plants that don't sequester their emissions, according to the US Department of Energy. Platts short list of those most likely to be built in five years lists 64 power plants – which would still vault the US into a virtual tie with India at 38,000 megawatts of new output.
If that happens, the US alone would add 250 million tons a year of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere - on top of the billions its power plants already emit. The recent decision by new owners of TXU not to build eight coal-fired power plants gives some reason for hope.
But if the US began building plants that stuff the CO2 underground, the picture could change dramatically, experts say. At least five bills now pending in Congress would effectively put a price on CO2, but just two of those push sequestration.
"The good news is the politicians have their hands on the steering wheel," Dr. Hawkins says. "If they would just turn the wheel toward sequestration, then we don't have to go over this cliff."
To date, many climate models have not fully accounted for the worldwide acceleration of coal-plant building, scientists say.
"The phenomenon ... would lead to greater CO2 emissions than most 'business as usual' forecasts project," says Robert Socolow, co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University in an e-mail. "Fortunately the world has now begun to take CO2 seriously, and coal-power emissions will be target No. 1 worldwide over the next decade. The fact that the US is waking up at last will give us the opportunity to have a positive effect on CO2 policy in the rest of the world,"he adds.