International efforts to avoid dangerous climate change aim for large and rapid reductions of fossil fuel CO2 emissions worldwide, including nearly complete decarbonization of the electric power sector. However, achieving such rapid reductions may depend on early retirement of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. Here, we analyze future fossil fuel electricity demand in 171 energy-emissions scenarios from Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), evaluating the implicit retirements and/or reduced operation of generating infrastructure.
Although IAMs calculate retirements endogenously, the structure and methods of each model differ; we use a standard approach to infer retirements in outputs from all six major IAMs and—unlike the IAMs themselves—we begin with the age distribution and region-specific operating capacities of the existing power fleet.
We find that coal-fired power plants in scenarios consistent with international climate targets (i.e. keeping global warming well-below 2 °C or 1.5 °C) retire one to three decades earlier than historically has been the case. If plants are built to meet projected fossil electricity demand and instead allowed to operate at the level and over the lifetimes they have historically, the roughly 200 Gt CO2 of additional emissions this century would be incompatible with keeping global warming well-below 2 °C. Thus, ambitious climate mitigation scenarios entail drastic, and perhaps un-appreciated, changes in the operating and/or retirement schedules of power infrastructure.