Environment & Science

Existing power plants put world on the hook for 300 billion tons of future carbon emissions, study says

Groundbreaking at a Louisville, Ky., coal-burning power plant in November 2012. UC Irvine scientist Steven Davis estimates that all the power plants in the world built in 2012 will emit 19 billion tons of carbon emissions in their lifetimes.
Groundbreaking at a Louisville, Ky., coal-burning power plant in November 2012. UC Irvine scientist Steven Davis estimates that all the power plants in the world built in 2012 will emit 19 billion tons of carbon emissions in their lifetimes.
Dylan Lovan/AP

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Existing power plants around the world are on track to spew over 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during their lifetimes. That's according to a new study from researchers at UC Irvine and Princeton University.

Building a new coal or gas fired power plant is a commitment to decades of emissions that contribute to climate change. And UC Irvine earth systems scientist Steve Davis said the amount of emissions we've already locked into is growing by about four percent a year with each new power plant.

"We're building more now than we ever have and that's not consistent with the rosy scenarios you hear about mitigating emissions and reducing climate change," he said.

The findings mean if the world hopes to limit global warming to just two degrees Celsius, the United States has already accounted for 20 percent of its budget of greenhouse gases over the next 50 years. China has locked in more than half of its emissions.

Davis said he hoped the new study will help spur policymakers to think about the total emissions from new sources coming on line, not just their current ones.