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Five Percent of Power Plants Create 73% of Electrical Generation Emissions

Power Plant Emissions
Poland’s Bechatow Power Station, where where 38 million tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere in 2018. Credit: BiLK-Thorn, CC BY-SA 2.0

Power plants across the world are giants of environmental pollution. A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that five percent of the 29,000 power plants surveyed were the source of 73 percent of the planet’s emissions of carbon dioxide from the electrical generation sector.

The journal ranked these “hyper-polluting” plants by sifting through the data on the 2018 emissions from the 29,000 facilities in the study. They found that the ten worst polluters were actually power plants that were inefficient, using outdated practices and dirtier coal to generate electricity.

These inefficient coal-fired plants are all in East Asia, Europe and India.

The worst one of them all is the Belchatow Power Station in Poland. The 27-year-old plant, which has the highest greenhouse gas emissions of any of the 29,000 plants surveyed, generates 20 percent of Poland’s electricity.

Belchatow uses an extremely dirty form of coal called lignite, or “brown coal.” It is Europe’s largest coal based power plant, but its ability to generate electricity is far outranked by other smaller lower-emissions plants around the world.

Belchtow released a shocking 38 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2018 alone. To put that number into perspective, the entire country of New Zealand emitted less than that in the same year.

Reducing dirty power plant emissions is the next step in fighting climate change

Intervening in plants such as Belchatow — which are inefficient and massive contributors to pollution — may be the key to the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Don Grant, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and one of the authors of the study, explained to Vice how urgent addressing the challenges posed by climate change has become:

“One of the challenges climate activists face is determining who exactly is to blame for the climate crisis,” said Grant. “Our study begins to address this problem in identifying super polluters.”

Grant published a book last year titled “Super Polluters: Tackling the World’s Largest Sites of Climate-Disrupting Emissions.”

He told Rolling Stone “The climate crisis often seems overwhelming and the product of impersonal forces beyond our control; the good news is that we can make swift and significant cuts in CO2 emissions simply by targeting the lowest hanging fruit -– super-polluting power plants.”

The study estimated the amount of reduction in emissions that would take place if the top five percent of super polluting power plants were to shift to a cleaner form of generating electricity.

They found that these “hyper-polluting” plants would reduce their effect on climate change by 25 percent if their operating efficiency was in line with the global average. If they switched from coal to natural gas they would achieve fully 30 percent reduction in emissions.

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