While some growing powers like China and India invest billions to make their exploding energy sectors cleaner, other developing nations are climbing up the economic ladder with few or no plans for improving their coal sectors, a new study finds.
The trend is just one of dozens that appear in a sweeping new database of 60,000 power plants worldwide with emissions data going back to 2004.
The Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) tool produced by the Center for Global Development, updated and released this week, shows that seven of the world's 10 dirtiest power plants are in Asia -- though none in China. On the other hand, China's state-owned power companies accounted for five of the top seven highest-emitting utility companies.
Though some countries and companies have invested in pollution control technologies over the decade, CARMA Project Manager Kevin Ummel said the global power sector trends are disheartening.
"Not much has changed," Ummel said. "You get the sense that psychologically, and we may just be exquisitely designed not to deal with climate change, everyone is focused on their little piece of the pie. You're doing what you can day by day. And the problem is that if you really think climate change is a problem, you need to start looking at solutions that are revolutionary.
"What we're doing right now is not revolutionary, and frankly, I don't know what's going to get us out of this equation," he said.
The brainchild of former World Bank economist David Wheeler, CARMA has operated for about five years. Ummel said he spent the past year and a half bringing the site up to speed with new global data and a new online interface on which users can do everything from mapping the world's dirtiest and cleanest power plants to digging deep on utilities in places as far-flung as Juliette, Ga., and Changshu City, China.
Soot and secrecy
The first and hardest step, Ummel said, was getting the data, which came from both government and international agencies as well as proprietary commercial databases and the open-source GeoNames database. Still, he noted, only about 15 percent of the world's power plants actually disclose information about how much they are polluting.
The United States produces the highest-quality power plant data in the world, he said, and Europe also has strong disclosure laws. A few developing countries like India and South Africa also disclose data -- not so much out of an interest in public information, but because they must according to U.N. rules under the Kyoto Protocol's carbon credit program.
Other nations -- namely China but also Australia -- don't publicly release pollution data. For those countries, Ummel said, emissions information is based on both back-channel information gathering and modeling to predict the amount a particular plant would likely emit based on its size and other factors like the type of coal it uses.
The Center for Global Development has made all the data public, for use by researchers and companies alike.
Aaron Kreider, a Web developer in Philadelphia who runs a site called the Energy Justice Network, a nonprofit group that supports clean energy and advocates phasing out all nuclear, fossil-fuel, large hydro and biomass plants, said he uses the CARMA data to supplement information on power plants in the United States. He said knowing the hard numbers behind emissions data helps those who want to be environmentally aware and understand how to focus their energies.
"It kind of gives you a picture," said Kreider, who said he travels mainly by bicycle and estimates his carbon footprint is about a third of the average American's. Still, he argued, individual measures should be complemented by global ones.
"You can be an environmentally sustainable person, or you can shut down a coal power plant," he said. "If we're really going to stop global warming, we've got to get people talking about power plants."
Old coal plants get second life
Alex Katzman, meanwhile, said he uses it to help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions. The head of business development at Enervee, a California company that calculates and scores the energy efficiency of electronic and home appliance products, Katzman said he uses the CARMA utility data to help calculate the costs of running certain devices. He, too, said knowledge is power.
"There's more than just the purchase price when you're thinking of buying any kind of electronic device," he said. "We just want to make it easy for people. You don't have to change how you shop, but CARMA allows us to go a step further and say, 'If you use this utility and you run this device, this is the impact of the emissions.'"
Researchers, meanwhile, said they could see using the data to better understand the policy impacts of addressing coal in different countries. Ailun Yang, a senior associate with the World Resources Institute think tank, called the amassed data "impressive." Yang, who focuses on emerging economies, said her research also has shown that many other fast-growing developing countries have lower coal plant standards than India and China, and few incentives to build cleaner plants.
China, she said, invested millions of dollars in closing down inefficient coal-fired power plants, a move for which the country was highly lauded. But part of that deal, she noted, included the recycling and sale of China's boilers to Indonesia.
"Some of these plants were not efficient by China's standards but were fine by Indonesia's standards," she said. Ummel also pointed to Pakistan, where the power sector is hungry but few standards are in place to ensure even incrementally cleaner growth.
Ummel said the data underscore vast technology improvements in China over the past five years. In 2004, he said, China had almost no pollution controls on its power plants. Now, almost one-quarter do, on par with the United States. Similarly, no power plants in China used supercritical technology in 2004, but five years later about a quarter of the fleet was outfitted.
China and South America buck a dismal trend
"Coal has gone gangbusters in China, but there has been a real shift in the types of technologies being used," Ummel said. "The problem is that these technologies don't really make a dent when it comes to climate change."
Ummel also pointed out that three of the world's top-emitting power plants were in South Korea, the others being in Poland and Taiwan. He attributed the surprising finding to the fact that South Korea has built a handful of large plants between 4,000 and 5,000 megawatts, while China has hundreds of 500 to 700 MW plants.
"On our list of largest-emitting power plants in the world, China doesn't feature as prominently as you would expect. But it's really a question of different strategies about whether to pack your megawatts in one place," he said.
Other researchers like Yang pointed out that South Korea's plants also are older and therefore more likely to be high-emitting. China, meanwhile, might build several smaller plants but concentrate them in a single village -- technically separate plants but for all intents and purposes a big, single utility.
"China, especially if you look at the ambition, has a really high concentration of mega-huge projects together," Yang said.
Meanwhile, the data in the United States as well as Europe point to a trend away from coal and toward gas, while South America has the cleanest power sector in the world. Ummel said despite some movement -- like China and India reducing their carbon intensity -- the fact remains that most of the world is fossil-fuel dependent and the rates of growth are worrisomely high.
"I fear we're stuck on this trajectory where everyone is focused on getting these incremental improvements," Ummel said. "But in the big picture, from a climate perspective, if we all do a little, we only accomplish a little."
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