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Aug 28, 2014 10:10 AM EDT

Power Plants Will Emit 300 Billion More Tons of CO2 during Their Lifetime, Study

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Power plants worldwide will emit more than three billion more tons of carbon dioxide during their lifetimes, according to a study conducted by the University of California, Irvine, and the Princeton University.

The researchers said that if power plants constructed in 2012 operate for around 40 years, they will alone release about 19 billion tons of CO2 during their existence. As the emissions are increasing by about 4 percent per year, it significantly adds to atmospheric levels of the climate-warming gas.

"Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build," said Steven Davis, assistant professor of Earth system science at UCI and the study's lead author, said in a statement. "But worldwide, we've built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren't keeping pace with this expansion."

"Far from solving the climate change problem, we're investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse."

Power plants currently functional in the U.S. and Europe constitute about 11 and 9 percent of emissions respectively. While plants in China and India represent 42 and 8 percent of future emissions, respectively.

The researchers said that about two-thirds of these emissions from the power sector are because of coal-burning stations. The natural gas-fired generators - which produce less CO2 per unit of energy than coal - has risen from about 15 percent in 1980 to 27 percent in 2012 as more such plants, are being constructed.

"A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world's capital investments," said co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton, professor emeritus of mechanical & aerospace engineering. "Current conventions for reporting data and presenting scenarios for future action need to give greater prominence to these investments. Such a rebalancing of attention will reveal the relentlessness of coal-based industrialization, long underway and showing no sign of abating."

The researchers said that the findings could help policymakers understand the long-term climate impacts of current investments in infrastructure.

The finding is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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