If just the top five percent of carbon-emitting plants in the U.S. reduced emissions to the average intensity of all plants, overall emissions from the electricity sector would fall 22 percent.
A new book co-authored by Wesley Longhofer, associate professor of organization and management at Goizueta Business School, offers new insights into a persistent problem—how to curb carbon emissions from top-polluting power plants around the world.
In Super Polluters: Tackling the World’s Largest Sites of Climate-Disrupting Emissions (Columbia University Press), Longhofer and co-authors Don Grant and Andrew Jorgenson argue that reducing pollution from fossil-fueled power plants should start with the dirtiest producers.
From data they gathered over eight years on the carbon emissions of every power plant in the world, they found that a small number of plants contribute the lion’s share of pollution. For instance, if just the top five percent of carbon-emitting plants in the U.S. reduced emissions to the average intensity of all plants, overall emissions from the electricity sector would fall 22 percent.
The book also questions claims that improvements in technical efficiency will always reduce greenhouse gases.
“It’s the paradox of efficiency,” Longhofer says. “Just because a plant produces power more efficiently doesn’t mean they’ll pollute less. It just becomes cheaper to produce.”
As sociologists, the authors are the first to put the problem into context, investigating global, organizational, and political conditions that explain super-polluter behavior. They demonstrate energy and climate policies most effective at curbing power-plant pollution and show how mobilized citizen activism shapes those outcomes.
“Climate change is fundamentally an organizational problem. Even if you think about the Paris Accords, it’s the power plants and the cars within those states that produce the emissions, not the states themselves,” Longhofer says. “What do we do with what we already know? How do we develop policies to help us achieve our climate goals?”