The existing power plants worldwide will emit more than 300 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in their lifetimes, according to a new study by Princeton University and the University of California-Irvine (UC Irvine).
Researchers from both universities estimate that the global fossil-fuel-burning plants erected in 2012 will emit around 19 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in their approximately 40-year lifespan.
This amount is considerably more than the 14 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions that were generated by global operating plants in 2012.
China represents 42% of committed future emissions followed by the US, Europe and India with 11%, 9% and 8%, respectively.
The study found that the commitments have been stable or declining in recent years.
UC Irvine assistant professor of Earth system science, and lead author of the study, Steven Davis said: "Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build.
"But worldwide, we've built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren't keeping pace with this expansion."
"Far from solving the climate change problem, we're investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse."
According to the study, the CO2 emissions from operating facilities represent a major portion of the emissions budget that would keep global temperatures from warming more than 2°C relative to the preindustrial era.
Princeton University professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Robert Socolow said: "A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world's capital investments in power plants and other infrastructure.
"Finding paths to low-carbon industrialisation must become a global priority."
Image: Socolow coal plant. Photo: courtesy of Princeton University.