China Coal Plant Emissions

I mentioned in a prior post (2C in our rear-view mirror, geoengineering dead ahead) that the IEA had tweeted out an astonishing statistic, namely that from 2005 to 2012 China had added 150MW of new coal-fired electricity generation every day. I mentioned in that post that I would leave calculating the CO2 emissions from those plants as an exercise for you, Dear Reader, but I just couldn’t help myself, so I fired up Excel and ran the numbers. The answer I got: 136 billion metric tons of CO2 over their lifetime, or 2.7 billion tons per year.

The spreadshseet is here.

A word or three on assumptions/methodology:

  • I counted 2005 through 2012 as 8 full years, e.g. from 1/1/2005 until 12/31/2012.
  • I used the CO2 intensity of US coal fired plants, as I suspect it’s very close to the value for the new Chinese plants. Anyone with different results, please let me know.
  • I used a capacity factor, basically the percentage of time the plants are running at full output, of 75%. This felt a little low to me, given how power constrained China is (hence the breakneck rate of adding new coal fired generation), but it’s the value I was able to find from what appears to be a reliable source.
  • I assumed a service life of 50 years. Yes, some plants will no doubt be retired before then, and some will be in service longer. This is a really rough estimate. If you have a reliable source for a value, please let me know.
  • I did not attempt to account for things like CO2 emissions from mining and transporting the river of coal needed to feed all these plants, including the portion imported. For a breakdown of where China’s imported coal originates, see: China demand for coal stokes world market.
  • While I’m well aware of all the discussion about “stranded assets” and “unburnable carbon”, i.e. fossil fuels that simply “must” remain in the ground, anyone who tries to take an educated guess about how long China (or India or the US or…) will remain on their current path may as well be throwing darts blindfolded. If there’s one thing that should be inescapably obvious by now, it’s that the major countries and factions will continue to do pretty much whatever the hell they want, right up until their leaders perceive that it’s in their (not the world’s, not their country’s) best interests to change course. And we’re nowhere near that political tipping point yet.

What to make of all this?

  • If 136 billion tons of new CO2 added on top of the emissions from the vast amount of fossil fuels burned in China, India, the US, the EU, et al. doesn’t scare you spitless, then you simply haven’t been paying enough attention to the climate mess we’ve created.
  • All of the projections I’ve seen that say we can emit no more than another X billion tons of CO2 before we forgo any chance at remaining below 2C of warming with a given probability are currently in the mid- to high-400 billion ton range. Assume 475 billion tons as an average, for the sake of argument. Then the new Chinese coal plants represent an emissions commitment equal to 29% of our entire, global, one-time carbon budget.
  • Do not, for a second, think that the prior point means that if not for this additional use of coal in China that it would be an “easy” task to get our emissions under control and dodge the rampaging enviro-unicorn known as the 2C limit. As the prior post I linked to at the top of this one points out, there’s a vanishingly small chance of avoiding 2C, simply because time is running out and it would take a barely controlled economic crash landing to cut emissions quickly enough.
  • What does 2.7 billion tons of additional CO2 per year mean in context? Checking Table ES-2 of the latest edition of the EPA publication US Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report shows that 2.7 billion tons of CO2 per year is 53% of all US emissions, 134% of US emissions from electricity generation, and 155% of transportation emissions (all US figures represent CO2 from fossil fuel burning only and for the year 2012).
  • That same yearly increment, 2.7 billion tons of CO2, accounts for 27% of all of China’s CO2 emissions for 2012.
  • There certainly are some victories to be found here and there, like the swift rise in solar power in the US and the increasing adoption of plug-in cars (like my Leaf). But we can’t lose sight of the broad picture, which tells us that all the major emitting countries aren’t doing anywhere enough to get us off the terribly destructive path we’re on and headed in the right direction. The degree and speed of change needed can only happen via a level of activism the world has never seen. The question then becomes: How do we create the change in us needed to change the world?

Photo Credit: China Coal Emissions Calculation/shutterstock