|This article originally appeared in
|7 December, 2005
|Carbon storage, possible Kyoto savior
A complex technology that involves capturing carbon and them pumping
the gas deep underground could help reduce the effect of global warming,
some environmentalists say.
By Eric J. Lyman in Montreal for ISN Security Watch
If the world succeeds in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the
atmosphere by a large enough degree to reduce the effect of global warming, it could
be because of a fast-evolving technology that facilitates pumping billions of tonnes of
gas into a deep underground grave and leaving it there.
The so-called “capture and storage technology” has become a popular topic during
climate control talks in Montreal this week.
The theory behind the technology is much more complicated that its simple name
implies. It involves capturing carbon produced during the process of power generation
from dirty fossil fuel sources like coal, and then pumping the gas deep underground,
where, under certain conditions, it will be absorbed by the earth. According to
computer models, as much as 95 per cent of the gas will remain there for up to 100
years or more.
The potential, according to advocates of the technology, is huge.
A model from the International Energy Agency estimates that capture and storage
technologies could be used to bury up to 5 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide
annually in the US by 2050. Europe could reduce its emissions by 1.6 billion tonnes a
year by the same point, and China could emit 3.8 billion metric tonnes less each year.
To put that into perspective, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions this year are
estimated to be slightly more than 24 billion tonnes.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - an organization that made a name for
itself as the first to identify global warming in the late 1980s - estimates that the
technology could produce as much as 55 per cent of recommended worldwide
emissions reductions by 2100.
A single project currently in the works from London-based BP is anticipated, once it
goes online in 2007, to reduce Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions levels by more than
the total savings through all the wind turbines in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland,
and Wales combined.
“This is not a silver bullet that will solve the world’s greenhouse gas emissions
problem,” Halldor Thorgeirsson, the coordinator for methods, inventories, and science
for the UN secretariat in charge of climate change, told ISN Security Watch. “But it might
get pretty close. Maybe it’s a silver-plated bullet.”
The problem is, in most cases, it will be years before the results of the high-tech
strategy come to full fruition. This means that the timing for the technology is bad, since
most wealthy economies are focusing on technologies that will help them significantly
reduce emissions for the period between 2008 and 2012, when emissions reductions
mandated by the Kyoto Protocol are measured.
At the moment, only three large-scale carbon capture and storage projects are in
operation - one each in Canada, Norway, and Algeria - though officials say dozens
more are in some state of development. However, the number could balloon once some
of the results of early projects are publicized.
There is also research into technologies that would similarly store carbon gas under
water, in the depths of the ocean floor.
One step toward the legitimization of the capture and storage technology came on 6
December, when the UN secretariat released its first special report on the subject. The
document provides what it calls the first “comprehensive assessment of the scientific,
technical, environmental, economic, and social aspects of capture and storage of
With that endorsement, the technology becomes a valid strategy that countries can
pursue as part of their efforts to reduce emissions.
“One thing that is exciting about this technology is that it takes an energy source that is
problematic, like coal, and it makes it a viable energy source in the environmental
context,” Dennis Tirpak, head of the climate change program at the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), told ISN Security Watch.
“Renewable energy is one part of the mitigation puzzle, and some people see nuclear
power as another alternative. Now carbon capture and storage is becoming part of the
puzzle as well,” he said.
But there are still obstacles to overcome, and cost is a big one. In most cases, the
economics associated with the capture, transport, storage, and monitoring of carbon
dioxide stores are still too high to make such projects viable. Furthermore, there is
uncertainty about how the technology will work over time. Though computer models
predict that 95 per cent of the carbon will remain underground after a century, the truth
is that nobody knows what will happen over the long term.
But environmentalists say the technology warrants attention.
“Yes, of course, there are questions about the effectiveness and the costs associated
with capture and storage technologies, but anything that can help mitigate emissions to
this scale absolutely must be explored,” Philip Clapp, president of the National
Environment Trust, told ISN Security Watch.
“All that coal in the ground around the United States and in China isn’t going to stay
there forever. It’s going to be used, and indications are that with this technology it could
be used in a much cleaner way,” he said.
The caption and storage topic has so far been one of the highlights of the fairly
pedestrian 11th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change
Convention (COP-11) and the first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as
the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP/MOP-1), which run started on 29
November and will close on Friday.
With some 10,000 delegates and observers on hand, the talks represent the largest
climate change gathering ever. And with the Kyoto Protocol only having been in force
since February, the talks are also the first opportunity for advocates of climate change
policy to start discussions on the post-2012 period, after the current targets in the
Kyoto agreement expire.
But the process has been slowed by disagreements about how regulation should work
in the years after 2012. Some advocate a continued regimen of emissions caps and
reductions. Others favor a focus on adapting to climate change rather than trying to
reverse it, or on encouraging private sector initiatives rather than working at the
governmental level, as the Kyoto Protocol does.
But every scenario includes encouraging research and development and fostering the
use of new technologies, including capture and storage technology.
“When I first heard about this idea of carbon capture and storage a few years ago, it
seems like something from science fiction, something from the future,” Carlo Fazza, an
Italy-based environmental researcher with the University of Bologna, told ISN Security
Watch. “Now that we all know more about it, I realize it really is something from the
future. But the future is coming.”
Eric J. Lyman is senior correspondent for ISN Security Watch.