Low Hanging Fruit
How to Eliminate 25% of Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions by 2035
Climate policy focused on reducing emissions often looks like a Rube Goldberg device, with complexity built upon complexity such that policy levers may or may not impact the intended outcome — which is reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels all the way to net-zero.
Today I share a simple proposal that would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels by 25% by 2035, and at a cost far less than the emissions reductions expected under the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). My analysis below is in round numbers, and please feel free in the comments to challenge my work and offer your own math for emissions or economics.
In a 2021 paper, Grant et al. concluded that just 5% of the world’s coal power plants were responsible for about 73% of carbon dioxide emissions from global electricity generation. With about 3,000 coal power plants globally in their analysis,1 that equates to about 150 power plants being responsible for ~25% of total global emissions from the burning of fossil fuels (assuming electricity makes up ~35% of global total emissions).
If the world committed to replacing those ~150 +/- coal plants with nuclear power plants by 2035 — perhaps negotiated under the provisions of the Paris Agreement — that would reduce total global emissions by ~25%, or almost 9 gigatonnes carbon dioxide (GtCO2), from the 2022 level of >34.3 GtCO2. That’s huge.2
How much would the replacement generation cost?
Let’s look to China where new nuclear power plants are asserted to cost ~$3 billion and can be brought online in 10 years. But just to be safe, let’s include some higher cost values, say $10 billion and $20 billion per new plant, with no assumptions of learning curves or economies of scale.3
For 150 plants, that leads to cost estimates of $450 billion, $1.5 trillion and $3 trillion, cumulatively to 2035.
How do those estimates compare to the recently implemented and widely celebrated U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)?
How much would that cost? According to the Brookings Institution (involving a similar authorship to the paper cited above), the IRA could cost about $1 trillion to 2035, and you can also find lower or higher estimates.
Let’s put all this together:
The best case IRA scenario provides emissions reductions of ~2.8 GtCO2 for ~$1 trillion.
The best case coal-to-nuclear scenario provides ~9 GtCO2 for ~$450 billion.
Coal-to-nuclear is more cost effective by about about 7 to 1.
The worst case IRA scenario provides no emissions reductions for ~$1 trillion.
The worst case coal-to-nuclear scenario provides emissions reductions of ~9 GtCO2 for ~$3 trillion.
Here, coal-to-nuclear is infinitely more cost effective. That’s a big number.
These numbers are conservative — you can vary the assumptions a great deal and these conclusions will still hold firm.
Of course, some countries are profoundly anti-nuclear. Fair enough — then keep going down the list of the most emissions-intensive coal plants and select those in nuclear-friendly countries. In the table up post, there is only one country that hosts one of the top-10 most polluting coal plants that is opposed to nuclear, Germany, the others are all nuclear friendly.
The simple and blindingly obvious reality is that if the world is going to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, then all coal plants will have to be either retired or retro-fitted with carbon capture and storage technologies, which do not yet exist at scale. Nuclear power does actually exist.
Sometimes the most direct route between two points is a straight line. Why not start with the low-hanging fruit?
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The actual number in the Grant et al. analysis is less, they explain: “After data preparation and outlier removal, there are 3,019 plant-level observations with observable annual capacity factor and 2,581 with observable CO2 emission factor.” Using 3,000 makes my analysis that much more conservative.
Grant et al. suggest an even huger number: “if all nations were to enforce the changes considered here, the world’s total electricity-based CO2 emissions could be reduced by as much as 29.50% should extreme emitters be required to use gas (the most available and efficient mitigation option) and 48.9% should they be required to incorporate carbon capture systems.”
More generally, a coal-to-nuclear replace program of this type could spur a global innovation race that seeks to improve the economics, performance and safety of nuclear technologies.
This range is computed based on the smallest and largest differences between baselines and IRA scenarios. That may or may not be methodologically correct, as baseline and IRA scenarios may be tied together, but it does err the analysis in favor of being overly generous to the projected effects of the IRA.