Climate Impacts of Hydropower: Enormous Differences among Facilities and over Time

Environ Sci Technol. 2019 Dec 3;53(23):14070-14082. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.9b05083. Epub 2019 Nov 13.


To stabilize the climate, we must rapidly displace fossil fuels with clean energy technologies. Currently hydropower dominates renewable electricity generation, accounting for two-thirds globally, and is expected to grow by at least 45% by 2040. While it is broadly assumed that hydropower facilities emit greenhouse gases on par with wind, there is mounting evidence that emissions can be considerably greater, with some facilities even on par with fossil fuels. However, analyses of climate impacts of hydropower plants have been simplistic, emphasizing the aggregated 100-year impacts from a one-year pulse of emissions. Such analyses mask the near-term impacts of methane emissions central to many current policy regimes, have tended to omit carbon dioxide emissions associated with initial plant development, and have not considered the impact of the accumulation of gases in the atmosphere over time. We utilize an analytic approach that addresses these issues. By analyzing climate impacts of sustained hydropower emissions over time, we find that there are enormous differences in climate impacts among facilities and over time. If minimizing climate impacts are not a priority in the design and construction of new hydropower facilities, it could lead to limited or even no climate benefits.

MeSH terms

  • Atmosphere
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Climate*
  • Fossil Fuels
  • Greenhouse Gases*


  • Fossil Fuels
  • Greenhouse Gases
  • Carbon Dioxide