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New coal plants bury 'Kyoto'

New greenhouse-gas emissions from China, India, and the US will swamp cuts from the Kyoto treaty.

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So much for Kyoto.

The official treaty to curb greenhouse-gas emissions hasn't gone into effect yet and already three countries are planning to build nearly 850 new coal-fired plants, which would pump up to five times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce.

The magnitude of that imbalance is staggering. Environmentalists have long called the treaty a symbolic rather than practical victory in the fight against global warming. But even many of them do not appear aware of the coming tidal wave of greenhouse-gas emissions by nations not under Kyoto restrictions.

By 2012, the plants in three key countries - China, India, and the United States - are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to a Monitor analysis of power-plant construction data. In contrast, Kyoto countries by that year are supposed to have cut their CO2 emissions by some 483 million tons.

The findings suggest that critics of the treaty, including the Bush administration, may be correct when they claim the treaty is hopelessly flawed because it doesn't limit emissions from the developing world. But they also suggest that the world is on the cusp of creating a huge new infrastructure that will pump out enormous amounts of CO2 for the next six decades.

Without strong US leadership, it's unlikely that technology to cut CO2 emissions will be ready in time for the power-plant construction boom, many say.

"If all those power plants are online by 2012, then obviously it completely cancels out any gains from Kyoto," says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The reason for the dramatic imbalance is coal. Just a few years ago, economists and environmentalists still pictured a world shifting steadily from "dirty" coal-fired power plants to "cleaner" natural-gas turbines. But the fast-rising price of natural gas and other factors abruptly changed that picture. Now the world is facing a tidal wave of new power plants fired by coal, experts say. "China and India are building coal-fired capacity as fast as they can," says Christopher Bergesen, who tracks power plant construction for Platts, the energy publishing division of McGraw- Hill.

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