Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 054019 (2018)

Power and heat generation is responsible for more GHG emissions than any other sector. The infrastructure for fossil fuel-based power generation has a typical lifetime of 35–40 years, so the estimated US$7.2 trillion invested in power plants carries a significant emissions commitment. The compatibility of these with the remaining carbon budgets required to meet climate targets has implications for the achievability of those targets and the economic viability of current and planned power-generating infrastructure.

Credit: Roman Bykhalov / Alamy Stock Vector

Alexander Pfeiffer at the Oxford Martin School, UK, and co-authors analyse the historic development of emission commitments from power plants to estimate the emissions committed for current and planned plants. They find that currently operating power plants imply cumulative future emissions of around 300 GtCO2, enough to exceed the available generation-only carbon budget (around 240 GtCO2) needed to achieve a 430–480 ppm CO2 scenario. In other words, even without any expansion, up to 20% of global fossil-fuelled generation capacity is at risk of being stranded — prematurely decommissioned, underutilized or subject to costly retrofitting — to meet Paris Agreement goals. When planned power plants are considered, committed emissions are almost doubled.