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China Passes U.S., Leads World in Power Sector Carbon Emissions

September 8, 2008
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CARMA: Carbon Monitoring for ActionChina accounts for more than half of the increase in global CO2 emissions from power production in the past year and has overtaken the U.S. to become the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter from the generation of electricity. But on a per capita basis, U.S. power-sector emissions driving climate change are still nearly four times those of China.

These are among the findings from the first annual update of data in CGD’s Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) which tracks the CO2 emissions of more than 50,000 power-plants worldwide. The new data, released on August 27, was featured on the front page of the business section of the Washington Post, and was picked up by other mainstream media and their associated blogs.

The news that India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) is the third largest corporate producer of CO2 in the world sparked a controversy in India. The NTPC responded with analysis, based in part on data from CARMA’s initial release last year, which argued that the firm is nonetheless highly efficient. CGD’s Kevin Ummel examined the NTPC assertions in a CARMA blog posting that was quickly picked up by India’s influential Business Standard.

“Global power generation accounts for more than a quarter of all emissions of CO2, the main greenhouse gas causing climate change, and the proportion is rising quickly,” Ummel said.

The CARMA data show that global emissions of CO2 from power generation have grown more than 34 percent in the past eight years, to 11.4 billion tons per year, up from from 8.5 billion tons in 2000, despite some improvements in efficiency and a slowly growing reliance on renewable energy. Two thirds of the increase since 2000 is attributable to a surge in emissions from China.

The additional 2.9 billion tons of power-related CO2 emissions per year since 2000 is equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of Australia, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain combined. The new data are cause for serious concern, including for China itself and for other developing countries. Climate scientists warn that the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere must be quickly stabilized to avert a climate catastrophe that will hit the developing world first and worst with declining agricultural productivity, droughts, floods, and rapid sea-level rise, especially in densely populated, low-lying regions.

“The new data show that emissions from power generation are racing in the wrong direction,” says CGD senior fellow David Wheeler. “We urgently need to cut power-related CO2 emissions and to very rapidly bring down the price of proven, zero-carbon renewable power sources, such as wind and solar.”

In one of the few encouraging findings, the CARMA data reveal that carbon intensity—the amount of carbon emitted per unit of power produced—shows signs of declining in some major countries, including China, India, Russia, and South Africa. But the decline is not nearly fast enough to offset the rapid growth in power consumption.

“Higher fuel prices lead power companies to improve the efficiency of fossil-fueled plants whenever possible. But those measures are inherently modest and total global emissions continue to grow rapidly,” said Ummel, who manages the CARMA database. “The needed shift to renewable and low-carbon alternatives is happening far too slowly to avert dangerous climate change.”

The world’s top-ten emitters of greenhouse gases from the power sector in absolute terms are China, the United States, India, Russia, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, and South Korea. If the 27 member states of the European Union are counted as a single country, the E.U. would rank as the third biggest CO2 polluter, after China and the United States.

The top-ten power companies in the world in terms of CO2 emissions include five in China, two in the U.S., one in India, one in South Africa, and one in Germany. The world’s biggest corporate carbon emitter is China’s Huaneng Power International, whose plants pump out about 285 million tons of CO2 per year, far more than the 227 million tons produced by all of the power plants in the United Kingdom combined and almost as much as the entire continent of Africa (335 million tons).