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Study: Calculating the True Cost of CO2 Emissions

Coal plantTaking into account the full amount of carbon dioxide that power plants generate during their lifetime instead of tracking annual emissions could be a more helpful way to look at the impact of power plant emissions, according to a paper by researchers at University of California-Irvine and Princeton University.

The researchers suggest that annual “commitment accounting” would give policymakers a way to look at the lifetime cost of CO2 emissions when considering new projects in the global power sector.

Commitment accounting is built on the idea of “committed” emissions, where future emissions from existing fossil fuel-burning facilities worldwide are calculated up front.

According to the paper, each coal-fired power station built between 2000 and 2012 has committed the world, on average, to 176 metric tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt of generating capacity across its lifetime, while the equivalent figure for gas-fired power plants is 80 metric tons.

According to Steven Davis, one of the researchers, these facts are not well known in the energy policy community, where annual emissions receive far more attention than future emissions related to new capital investments. With commitment accounting, the magnitude of warming would not be determined by emissions in any one year, but by cumulative CO2 emissions.

In a New York Times blog post, Andrew C. Revkin noted that Environmental Research Web had discussed the paper in a piece titled “Why our carbon-dioxide emissions are like credit-card debt.” In that piece, Davis said that one of the things that makes climate change discussion difficult is that it lacks immediacy, and commitment accounting helps bring a relevancy to the discussion by quantifying the long-run emissions related to current investment decisions.

In the US, a recent initiative to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants has received opposition from the industry.

Photo Credit: Coal plant via Shutterstock

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