A new study in the journal Scientific Reports examines the issue of “disproportionality” — the idea that some power plants contribute more to a nation’s greenhouse gas emissions than others. The study suggests that targeting these worst offender plants — instead of trying to cut emissions evenly across all power plants — could be a more effective way of cutting global emissions to address climate change.
“Disproportionality is thinking about how much inequality there is in responsibility across different facilities in terms of how much they’re contributing to overall pollution levels,” said Andrew Jorgenson, a sociologist at Boston College and the study’s lead author. “So the more uneven the responsibility is across facilities, the more disproportionality there is.”
“On the one hand, it’s kind of an obvious idea,” Jorgenson added. “It’s very likely that there’s probably some [facilities] that are the big polluters — and if so, shouldn’t we think about effective strategies if we’re concerned with reducing pollution of any kind?”
The Washington Post reports that Jorgenson and two colleagues decided to focus their research on the electricity sector, and drew upon a database of nearly 20,000 fossil fuel-burning power plants in 161 nations around the world. The scientists assigned a degree of disproportionality to each of the plants by weighing their emissions production against that of other plants in the country. Nations with a few power plants with very high carbon output while the rest produced lower levels of emissions would have a greater degree of disproportionality than nations with power plants that all produced similar levels of emissions.
What’s behind this disproportionality? The type of fossil fuel being burned is one major factor. New versus outdated technology also causes a significant difference in the output of emissions in plants that are otherwise very similar.
Perhaps most important, The Washington Post notes, the researchers investigated the relationship between disproportionality and overall electricity-related emissions in any country, and found a link. Their analysis suggested that a 1 percent increase in disproportionality leads to a 0.37 percent increase in overall national-level carbon emissions from fossil fuel power plants.
The good news of all this? The research suggests that by targeting the most inefficient power plants, nations could see bigger reductions of emissions for less cost. Rather than applying blanket actions across all power plants, nations can apply the lessons and best practices learned from well-functioning plants to their more inefficient plants for a greater overall impact.