Global and regional drivers of power plant CO2 emissions over the last three decades

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Xinying Qin, Dan Tong, Fei Liu, Ruili Wu, Bo Zheng, Yixuan Zheng, Jun Liu, Ruochong Xu, Cuihong Chen, Liu Yan, Qiang Zhang


The past three decades have witnessed the dramatic expansion of global biomass- and fossil fuel-fired power plants, but the tremendously diverse power infrastructure shapes different spatial and temporal CO2 emission characteristics. Here, by combining Global Power plant Emissions Database (GPED v1.1) constructed in this study and the previously developed China coal-fired power Plant Emissions Database (CPED), we analyzed global and regional changes in generating capacities, age structure, and CO2 emissions by fuel type and unit size, and further identified the major driving forces of these global and regional structure and emission trends over the past 30 years. Accompanying the growth of fossil fuel- and biomass-burning installed capacity from 1,774 GW in 1990 to 4,139 GW in 2019 (a 133.3% increase), global CO2 emissions from the power sector relatively increased from 7.5 Gt to 13.9 Gt (an 85.3% increase) during the same period. However, diverse developments and transformations of regional power units in fuel types and structure characterized various regional trends of CO2 emissions. For example, in the United States and Europe, CO2 emissions from power plants peaked before 2005, driven by the utilization of advanced electricity technologies and the switches from coal to gas fuel at the early stage. It is estimated the share of identified low-efficiency coal power capacity decreased to 4.3% in the United States and 0.6% in Europe with respectively 2.1% and 13.2% thermal efficiency improvements from 1990-2019. In contrast, CO2 emissions in China, India, and the rest of world are still steadily increasing because the growing demand for electricity is mainly met by developing carbon-intensive but less effective coal power capacity. The index decomposition analysis (IDA) to identify the multi-stage driving forces on the trends of CO2 emissions further suggests different global and regional characteristics. Globally, the growth of demand mainly drives the increase of CO2 emissions for all stages (i.e. 1990-2000, 2000-2010 and 2010-2019). Regional results support the critical roles of thermal efficiency improvement (accounting for 20% of the decrease in CO2 emissions) and fossil fuel mix (61%) in preventing CO2 emission increases in the developed regions (e.g., the United States and Europe). The decrease of fossil fuel share gradually demonstrates its importance in carrying the positive effects on curbing emissions in the most of regions, including the developing economics (i.e. China and India) after 2010 (accounting for 46% of the decrease in CO2 emissions). Our results highlight the contributions of different driving forces to emissions have significantly changed over the past 30 years, and this comprehensive analysis indicates that the structure optimization and transformations of power plants is paramount importance to curb or further reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector in the future.



Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Physical Sciences and Mathematics


Global power units, CO2 emission trends, Power structure evolutions, Emission drivers


Published: 2022-01-09 09:11

Last Updated: 2022-01-09 17:11


CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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Conflict of interest statement:
The authors declare no competing interests.

Data Availability (Reason not available):
For the company name, plant name, plant location, number of power generating units, CO2 emissions at the unit-level contained in the GPED is available at: Other information at unit-level is obtained from commercial database and not publically available. For the database CPED, unit-level information is not publically available due to restriction from data providers.

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