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Global boom in coal power – and emissions

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Forget the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." Disregard rising public concern over global warming. Ignore the Kyoto Protocol.

The world certainly is – at least when it comes to building new electric-power plants. In the past five years, it has been on a coal-fired binge, bringing new generators online at a rate of better than two per week. That has added some 1 billion tons of new carbon-dioxide emissions that humans pump into the atmosphere each year. Coal-fired power now accounts for nearly a third of human-generated global CO2 emissions.

So what does the future hold? An acceleration of the buildup, according to a Monitor analysis of power-industry data. Despite Kyoto limits on greenhouse gases, the analysis shows that nations will add enough coal-fired capacity in the next five years to create an extra 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year.

Those accelerating the buildup are not the usual suspects.

Take China, which is widely blamed for the rapid rise in greenhouse-gas emissions. Indeed, China accounted for two-thirds of the more than 560 coal-fired power units built in 26 nations between 2002 and 2006. The Chinese plants boosted annual world CO2 emissions by 740 million tons (see chart). But in the next five years, China is slated \to slow its buildup by half, according to industry estimates, adding 333 million tons of new CO2 emissions every year. That's still the largest increase of any nation. But other nations appear intent on catching up.

"Really, it's been the story of what China is doing," says Steve Piper, managing director of power forecasting at Platts, the energy information division of McGraw-Hill that provided country-by-country power-plant data to the Monitor. "But it's also a story of unabated global growth in coal-fired power. We're seeing diversification away from pricier natural gas and crude oil. Coal looks cheap and attractive - and countries with coal resources see an opportunity that wasn't there before."

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