The net climate impact of coal-fired power plant emissions
Abstract. Coal-fired power plants influence climate via both the emission of long-lived carbon dioxide (CO2) and short-lived ozone and aerosol precursors. Using a climate model, we perform the first study of the spatial and temporal pattern of radiative forcing specifically for coal plant emissions. Without substantial pollution controls, we find that near-term net global mean climate forcing is negative due to the well-known aerosol masking of the effects of CO2. Imposition of pollution controls on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides leads to a rapid realization of the full positive forcing from CO2, however. Long-term global mean forcing from stable (constant) emissions is positive regardless of pollution controls. Emissions from coal-fired power plants until ~1970, including roughly 1/3 of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions, likely contributed little net global mean climate forcing during that period though they may have induce weak Northern Hemisphere mid-latitude (NHml) cooling. After that time many areas imposed pollution controls or switched to low-sulfur coal. Hence forcing due to emissions from 1970 to 2000 and CO2 emitted previously was strongly positive and contributed to rapid global and especially NHml warming. Most recently, new construction in China and India has increased rapidly with minimal application of pollution controls. Continuation of this trend would add negative near-term global mean climate forcing but severely degrade air quality. Conversely, following the Western and Japanese pattern of imposing air quality pollution controls at a later time could accelerate future warming rates, especially at NHmls. More broadly, our results indicate that due to spatial and temporal inhomogenaities in forcing, climate impacts of multi-pollutant emissions can vary strongly from region to region and can include substantial effects on maximum rate-of-change, neither of which are captured by commonly used global metrics. The method we introduce here to estimate regional temperature responses may provide additional insight.