The official treaty to curb greenhouse-gas emissions hasn't gone into effect yet and already three countries are planning to build nearly 850 new coal-fired plants, which would pump up to five times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce.
The magnitude of that imbalance is staggering. Environmentalists have long called the treaty a symbolic rather than practical victory in the fight against global warming. But even many of them do not appear aware of the coming tidal wave of greenhouse-gas emissions by nations not under Kyoto restrictions.
By 2012, the plants in three key countries - China, India, and the United States - are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to a Monitor analysis of power-plant construction data. In contrast, Kyoto countries by that year are supposed to have cut their CO2 emissions by some 483 million tons.
The findings suggest that critics of the treaty, including the Bush administration, may be correct when they claim the treaty is hopelessly flawed because it doesn't limit emissions from the developing world. But they also suggest that the world is on the cusp of creating a huge new infrastructure that will pump out enormous amounts of CO2 for the next six decades.
Without strong US leadership, it's unlikely that technology to cut CO2 emissions will be ready in time for the power-plant construction boom, many say.
"If all those power plants are online by 2012, then obviously it completely cancels out any gains from Kyoto," says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The reason for the dramatic imbalance is coal. Just a few years ago, economists and environmentalists still pictured a world shifting steadily from "dirty" coal-fired power plants to "cleaner" natural-gas turbines. But the fast-rising price of natural gas and other factors abruptly changed that picture. Now the world is facing a tidal wave of new power plants fired by coal, experts say. "China and India are building coal-fired capacity as fast as they can," says Christopher Bergesen, who tracks power plant construction for Platts, the energy publishing division of McGraw- Hill.
China is the dominant player. The country is on track to add 562 coal-fired plants - nearly half the world total of plants expected to come online in the next eight years. India could add 213such plants; the US, 72. (See chart below.)
Altogether, those three nations are set to add up to 327,000 megawatts by 2012 - three quarters of the new capacity in the global pipeline and roughly equal to the output of today's US coal-fired generating fleet.
The new coal plants from the three nations would burn about 900 million extra tons of coal each year. That, in turn, would emit in the neighborhood of 2.5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, Dr. Schmidt estimates.
"I'm not hugely optimistic we are going to slow the rate of carbon emission overall any time soon," says Schmidt of the Goddard institute. "If this sort of thing continues unchecked, we won't be arguing about climate change in 2100, because the changes will be all too obvious."
But several uncertainties remain. First, not all of the plants may be built. In the US, for example, local opposition may halt construction of some of the 100 coal-fired plants now in various stages of development. According to Mr. Bergesen's numbers, 72 plants could be added, the basis for the Monitor's estimates.
Another uncertainty: Slightly less than half of the new plants Platts forecasts for China and India have an official start date. If only those plants with start dates are built, then the expected emissions from the three nations would total only 1.2 billion tons of CO2, still more than double the required reduction from Kyoto. But that estimate is conservative, experts say, because Chinese and Indian leaders face few political barriers to power-plant construction and big demands for more power.
Efficiency a key
Although US coal-fired plants are far more efficient than those in China or India, all three countries, presumably, would install state-of-the-art technology. The Monitor's estimates are based on the assumption that the new plants in all three nations will be 10 percent more efficient than today's US average - a conservative estimate, experts say.
The third uncertainty involves new technology. Having rejected Kyoto, President Bush says the US will pursue its own policy of voluntary carbon reductions and conduct research into technologies like "carbon sequestration" - burying CO2 rather than emitting it. To do that, the US Department of Energy hopes to develop new technologies by 2012 that would economically capture the greenhouse gas before it leaves the power plant.
One approach - called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology - aims to siphon off CO2 before it's sent up the stack. The largest US power company, American Electric Power in Columbus, Ohio, plans to build at least one commercial IGCC plant by 2010. Another coal-burning power company, Cinergy, in Cincinnati, this month said it also would build an IGCC plant.
But funding for a key billion-dollar federal IGCC experimental program called FutureGen is lagging. And unless the US sets a limit on CO2 emissions that creates a market for carbon-reducing technology, there is little financial incentive to invest in such technology, experts say. As a result, the technology appears unlikely to be deployed in time to make much difference in the coming surge of power-plant construction.
Without such technology, the impact on climate by the new coal plants would be significant, though not entirely unanticipated. They would boost CO2 emissions from fossil fuels by about 14 percent by 2012, Schmidt estimates. That's within the 1 to 2 percent annual range for CO2 growth expected in "high-growth" scenarios put forward by climate scientists. But it does not fall into the "maximum" scenario they use to evaluate the worst-case impact of greenhouse gases.
The power of six
"The point is that a relatively small number of countries holds the fate of the planet in their hands in terms of climate change," says David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "If the five or six countries building all these power plants were to come together to develop a strategy for carbon capture applied to coal, it would be a huge step toward cutting global warming."
Energy security is one factor driving the shift. With its 250-year supply of coal, the US is often called the "Saudi Arabia of coal." China, with similarly huge reserves, is even planning to convert coal into synthetic fuel for cars - even though such processes typically produce large amounts of greenhouse gases.
Coal's low price has been a powerful incentive, too. Chinese authorities are pushing for cleaner power. But gas pipelines in China aren't fully utilized because of that fuel's higher cost, experts say. And in the US, utility companies are shifting focus from natural gas to coal instead.
"There has been an abrupt about-face," says Robert McIlvaine, who heads his own Northfield, Ill., information company that tracks the construction of coal power plants globally. "Utilities that would not consider a coal-fired plant a year or two ago are now moving forward with coal-fired projects."
With natural gas prices expected to continue rising, 58 other nations have 340 new coal-fired plants in various stages of development. They are expected to go online in a decade or so. Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Turkey are all planning significant new coal-fired power additions. Germany also plans to build eight coal plants with 6,000 megawatts capacity.
But China is the key. "The Chinese will surpass the coal-fired generating capacity and the CO2 emissions of the US in the next couple of years," Mr. McIlvaine says.
Hit by blackouts and power restrictions for 18 months, China has been scrambling to relieve that pressure. Scores of unauthorized power projects about which little is known have sprouted nationwide - along with hundreds of official projects, McIlvaine says. Because of this, even careful estimates could be low, both he and Bergesen say.
"Environmental optimists were assuming the world was going to switch to gas, but when you're short of gas you use your own coal," says Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at the University of Dundee, in Scotland. "What you're seeing with China and the others is the cheapness and security of coal just overwhelming the desire to be clean."
COAL'S KNOCKOUT BLOW TO KYOTO: By 2012, expected cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions under the Kyoto treaty will be swamped by emissions from a surge of new coal-fired plants built in China, India, and the United States
(SOURCES: UDI-PLATT'S, US ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION, AND INDUSTRY ESTIMATES; SCOTT WALLACE - STAFF)