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Understanding future emissions from low-carbon power systems by integration of life-cycle assessment and integrated energy modelling

Nature Energyvolume 2pages939945 (2017) | Download Citation


Both fossil-fuel and non-fossil-fuel power technologies induce life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, mainly due to their embodied energy requirements for construction and operation, and upstream CH4 emissions. Here, we integrate prospective life-cycle assessment with global integrated energy–economy–land-use–climate modelling to explore life-cycle emissions of future low-carbon power supply systems and implications for technology choice. Future per-unit life-cycle emissions differ substantially across technologies. For a climate protection scenario, we project life-cycle emissions from fossil fuel carbon capture and sequestration plants of 78–110 gCO2eq kWh−1, compared with 3.5–12 gCO2eq kWh−1 for nuclear, wind and solar power for 2050. Life-cycle emissions from hydropower and bioenergy are substantial (100 gCO2eq kWh−1), but highly uncertain. We find that cumulative emissions attributable to upscaling low-carbon power other than hydropower are small compared with direct sectoral fossil fuel emissions and the total carbon budget. Fully considering life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions has only modest effects on the scale and structure of power production in cost-optimal mitigation scenarios.

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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007–2013 under grant agreement n° 308329 (ADVANCE) and was supported by ENavi, one of the four Kopernikus Projects for the Energy Transition funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Author information


  1. Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, PO Box 60 12 03, Potsdam, Germany

    • Michaja Pehl
    • , Florian Humpenöder
    • , Alexander Popp
    •  & Gunnar Luderer
  2. Industrial Ecology Programme and Department of Energy and Process Engineering, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway

    • Anders Arvesen
  3. Center for Industrial Ecology, Yale School for Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, CT, USA

    • Edgar G. Hertwich


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M.P. and G.L. designed the research with input from A.A. and E.H. LCA data were provided by A.A. and E.H. Land-use modelling was performed by F.H. and A.P., and A.A. integrated the results into the LCA framework. M.P. performed the IAM scenario modelling and integration of LCA data. M.P. and G.L. wrote the paper with contributions and edits by all authors.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Michaja Pehl or Gunnar Luderer.

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    Supplementary Figures 1–8, Supplementary Notes 1–5 and Supplementary References

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