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


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

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Michaja Pehl or Gunnar Luderer.

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Embodied energy use of electricity production as a percentage of lifetime electricity production.
Fig. 2: Specific direct and indirect GHG emissions.
Fig. 3: Total global 2050 emissions.
Fig. 4: Differences between global indirect emissions.
Fig. 5: Impact on optimal technology choice.