The low carbon energy transition is on and a recent study by Oxford academics shows that very soon any new thermal power plants will end up with a very short lifetime if we are to meet our greenhouse gas emissions targets. Pilita Clark writes in the Financial Times about the recent study.
Energy companies warned against building new power stations
Energy companies can only keep building new coal and gas power stations for one more year if the world is to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, Oxford university researchers have found.
The startling finding dashes the widely-held assumption that climate change is a distant problem that today’s governments can safely leave to their successors.
It even shocked some of the Oxford academics who produced it. “I was surprised,” said economist Cameron Hepburn, co-author of a peer-reviewed paper on the findings to be published in the Applied Energy journal.
“I think the general sense is that this is a problem, but not that it would have to be addressed next year,” he said.
The new study also casts doubt on the chances of meeting the goals of the international climate change accord nearly 200 governments struck in Paris in December.
The Paris agreement aims to stop global temperatures rising more than 2C from pre-industrial times.
But the Oxford paper says that to have a 50 per cent chance of meeting the 2C target, there can be no new fossil fuel electricity generation plants built “from 2017 at the latest”, unless they are fitted with expensive carbon-capturing technology.
This is because such plants have long lifetimes and play a significant role in driving global warming.
Temperatures have already risen nearly 1C since 1900 as emissions of carbon dioxide and other man-made greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas have soared.
Electricity generation, and heating, accounts for about a quarter of the human-caused greenhouse gases that scientists say are mainly responsible for climate change.
The CO2 these plants produce lingers in the atmosphere for centuries and the power stations themselves can last for decades.
The study says about 29 per cent of such power plants in the EU are more than 30 years old and 61 per cent are more than 20 years old. Some coal power stations have been going for more than 50 years.
“For policymakers who think of climate change as a long-term future issue this should be a wake-up call,” the authors of the analysis said.
“If the nations of the world are serious about their Paris commitments, then all new investment in energy infrastructure would need to be zero emissions from 2018 onwards.”
While new power plants burning coal — the dirtiest fossil fuel — are becoming less common in the EU and the US, hundreds are still planned in Asia and other parts of the world.
That presents governments with three unpleasant choices, the Oxford academics say.
The new plants could be written off before they reach the end of their economically useful life; huge investments could be made in technology that captures carbon and stores it underground, or the 2C goal could be abandoned.
“All three options involve very significant economic costs and risks,” the researchers say.
Governments have committed $24bn to carbon capture and storage projects over the past 15 years, but the technology is so expensive that it has failed to be widely adopted.
The UK’s aims of becoming a carbon capture powerhouse in Europe were thrown into disarray last year when the government abruptly scrapped a £1bn contest aimed at getting the technology built in power stations.
Efforts to find newer technologies that can suck emissions from the air are still in the lab.
The Oxford study authors said there was a lot of evidence that the cost of clean energy alternatives such as solar and wind farms were coming down fast as they were deployed at greater scale.
That suggests it would be economically prudent to shift all new energy investment to such sources, they say, adding people putting money into fossil fuel assets should be wary.
“Investors investing in new carbon-emitting infrastructure today, assuming that those assets will operate for decades to come, should ask hard questions about the realism of that assumption and the risk of future shutdowns and write-offs,” the researchers said.