In the fight against climate change, carbon capture is crucial

October 16, 2009

chalmers_small- Hannah Chalmers is a postgraduate researcher at the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey. All views expressed are her own -

This week the International Energy Agency launched a series of detailed technology roadmaps covering 19 technologies that are expected to be important in mitigating the risk of dangerous of climate change. One of these was for carbon capture and storage (CCS).

At the same time, energy and environment ministers were attending a meeting convened by the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum. Their final communiqué affirmed CCS as “an important element of any effective response to climate change” and described a series of industrial-scale demonstration projects as “vital”. But, what is CCS? Why does it matter? And can it deliver?

The principle is simple. To avoid dangerous climate change it is very likely that we need to avoid a significant proportion of the carbon dioxide emissions that could be produced by fossil fuels that we already know how to access at reasonable cost. It is, therefore, necessary to either (1) convince countries with fossil fuels to leave them in the ground unused, essentially forever, or (2) ensure that the vast majority of carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel use does not end up in the atmosphere.
CCS projects implement the second option. They collect carbon dioxide that is produced by fossil fuels (or biofuels which also contain carbon).

In a typical scheme, this captured carbon dioxide is then transported and injected into a geological formation at least 1 kilometre below the earth’s surface. Getting CCS to work matters because it should make it much easier for countries with large fossil fuel reserves, and particularly coal-rich countries such as the USA and China, to sign up to serious global action on climate change.

A range of technologies for CCS are under development and are at different stages of maturity. For the options closest to commercial deployment, the main technical challenges tend to centre on adapting, enlarging and integrating proven approaches from existing industries. There are some initial trial units already in operation, but further large-scale demonstration is needed before CCS can be seen as ‘business-as-usual’.

Although some engineering challenges remain, most of the significant hurdles to a successful global rollout of CCS are not technical. CCS adds to the cost of using fossil fuels for the sole purpose of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but it typically receives much less support than other developing low carbon options with similar costs. Implementing CCS also requires that the general public and other key players become comfortable with the risks and opportunities of a new industry. This takes time, but there is general agreement that we must act quickly on climate change.

As the Copenhagen negotiations approach, a number of commentators are discussing what a ‘global deal’ might look like. The ministers at the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum concluded that the “viability of CCS as a key mitigation technology should be recognized in appropriate international legal frameworks including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

An important contribution a Copenhagen agreement could make for CCS would be including it in any agreements on accelerating global technology development. This should include appropriate action on improving global carbon dioxide storage availability estimates and capacity building so that countries that need to use CCS, including developing nations, are able to adapt appropriate CCS technologies to their local conditions and are ready to operate CCS schemes effectively.

It is unlikely that CCS will be seen as critical part of the Copenhagen deal by many observers. CCS could, however, be increasingly important as it facilitates much more ambitious action in the future. But, it cannot play this vital role without sufficient support for rapid implementation of a suite of initial commercial-scale projects.

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