Website tracks worst polluting power plants

WASHINGTON, D.C. - How dirty is your electricity?

The information is on a new website, and its creators hope the public disclosure will inspire a global cleanup of polluting power plants.

Around the world, 50,000 plants generate electricity: Every year, the thousands that burn coal and other fossil fuels spew 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide, making a major contribution to climate change, according to the Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) site.

The problem stands to get worse, with hundreds more coal-fired plants set to be built during the next decade, says David Wheeler of the Centre for Global Development, which compiled the database.

Political rhetoric increasingly stresses the need to cut emissions, "but the reality on the ground is going in the other direction," Wheeler said in an interview.

"Information leads to action.... If you can get a coherent database to the public, you can have quite a substantial impact."

About 60 per cent of the world's electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, and those power plants create one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, CARMA says.

The countries with, by far, the most dirty plants are the United States and China: Together, they produce more than half the global power plant emissions.

Canada is well back in 15th place. Thanks to its many sources of hydro and nuclear power, Canada also produces relatively few greenhouse gases in proportion to the electricity generated.

Among individual plants, the biggest emitters are in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Russia and the U.S.

Ontario Power Generation's Nanticoke plant on Lake Erie is 65th on the list, at about 17.6 million tons of greenhouse gases a year.

It operates only intermittently to generate electricity at times of peak demand. If it ran as often as most large plants it would be a "world scale" polluter, Wheeler said.

While 4,000 companies run power plants, only 100 produce 57 per cent of the emissions, Wheeler noted. "One hundred CEOs are accountable for that much."

Research for the site – – confirmed "the dismaying persistence" of coal as a fuel, despite its well-known contribution to climate change, he said.

Along with hundreds of coal-fired plants being built in Asia, the U.S. plans 83 and Western Europe, 38.

The work also undermined the argument, often made in international negotiations, that climate change is caused by wealthy industrialized nations and, therefore, the developing world merits a pass while it attempts to rise out of poverty. This year, for the first time, greenhouse emissions from power plants in developing nations will exceed those in the developed world.

The view that the "South" can wait is outmoded, Wheeler said.

It's "moving into crisis territory on its own now, even if there was no more carbon dioxide from the 'North.'"

The solution, Wheeler said, must be "some grand bargain" among all 203 nations included in the database to regulate emissions and reduce them through new technology, renewable sources, conservation and efficiency.

Public disclosure is already credited with reducing air and water emissions of toxic substances in Canada, the U.S. and even in China, Wheeler said.

It can lead to public pressure on polluters. As well, he said, banks are sometimes unwilling to back companies that might face pollution lawsuits or appear to be wasteful. And corporate executives occasionally want to improve their image. Disclosure can, "set off soul-searching in corporate suites."


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