Why CCS shouldn't be viewed as the unpopular cousin

The heaviest carbon legacy we have to deal with is the vast installed base of fossil-fuelled industry, which is why carbon capture and storage has a valuable role to play in the climate mitigation portfolio.

The last week has seen a wave of reports from the World Bank, the World Meteorological Organisation and other climate experts on the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, which are already at dangerous levels in our atmosphere. The need for prompt and aggressive action is clear.

Various technologies are available to mitigate emissions, but these are not yet deployed at the scale necessary. These include increasing energy efficiency, switching to renewable energy, cleaner transport, increasing carbon uptake in forests and soils, and carbon capture and storage.

Amongst many environmentalists CCS is the unpopular cousin at that party, but there are several reasons why it should be a part of the solutions mix. These are set out in a report released yesterday in Doha by a global network of environmental NGO groups including The Climate Institute, World Resources Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council and Zero Emissions Resource Organisation.

The first reason is that CCS offers a pathway to reduce emissions from fossil-fuelled stationary sources. The heaviest carbon legacy that we have to deal with today is the vast installed base of fossil-fuelled industry. In particular, emissions from the use of coal (mainly for power generation) present the largest need for CCS application due to their magnitude and the long average lifetime of coal-fired power generation infrastructure.

The sheer size of this installed base and its projected growth elsewhere than Australia makes it a daunting proposal to try and replace it entirely through efficiency and renewable energy. Even if such replacement is technically possible (and credible country analyses say that it is), very large economic, political and social inertia would need to be overcome for this to happen, particularly in developing countries trying to match poverty and emissions goals. A balanced and hedged approach, at the very least, dictates having contingencies in place in case the shift away from fossil fuels takes longer than planned or desired.

Second, the deployment of a portfolio of technologies is not only likely to increase the probability of delivering economy-wide emission reduction outcomes, but is also likely to result in lower overall costs of mitigation. The scale of emission reductions needed to combat climate change means that no single measure or technology is going to be able to deliver those reductions alone. The International Energy Agency has said that stabilising emissions without CCS raises costs by over 70 per cent – an additional annual cost of $US1.28 trillion by 2050.

Third, for some industrial applications, there are few other ways available today to achieve large emission reductions, especially from installed infrastructure. The manufacturing of cement and steel, for example, emit significant amounts of CO2 as an integral part of the industrial process. Globally, a fifth of CO2 emitted from fuel combustion comes from industrial processes. While some of these processes can be improved or modified, these emissions cannot be completely eliminated as long as there is continued demand for their products.

Fourth, it’s pretty clear we are going to have to strip or scrub CO2 from the atmosphere where levels are already dangerous. Most of the climate models which have us avoiding 2 degrees warming have negative emissions energy and that means sustainable biomass with CCS. 

There are a wide range of biomass-related technologies involving energy generation, such as power plants that co-fire biomass and fossil fuel, combined heat and power plants and a range of flue gas streams from the pulp and paper industry, fermentation in ethanol production and biogas upgrading processes. In 2010, this energy source accounted for almost 10 per cent of the total global primary energy use.

The amount of appropriate biomass available for energy production is limited by several ecological and economic factors, but it’s likely to play an important role

Extensive research and experience has shown that carbon can be captured and stored safely and effectively, with the right regulatory oversight. Regulatory frameworks for CO2 injection are being finalised in various countries, and it is important that these contain adequate safeguards for public health and the environment, and that all countries abide by minimum standards.

CCS technology is available today, enabling the deployment of the technology to begin worldwide immediately, but there are policy shortfalls.

Here in Australia there is plenty of scepticism, partly because of the way CCS has been used as a smokescreen for inaction by governments and industry. Both have stupidly entrenched cynicism by using the oxymoronic ’clean coal‘ and industry opposition to emission performance standards for power plants and proper investment hasn’t helped. 

The reality is that coal for power only has a future in the short to medium-term, and not beyond, if CCS works at commercial scale. Even the relatively paltry 10-year $1 billion industry ’Coal21’ fund is only a quarter committed after six years.

Industry needs to do much more but it is also true that the existing policy framework does not support early investment in CCS deployment and should be addressed.

There should be emissions performance standards for all new fossil fuel power stations and major expansions or refurbishments of existing generators. Our submission to the short-lived government review was for an EPS of 0.5 t CO2e/MWh, dropping to 0.2 t CO2e/MWh after 2020 for new coal. Non-peaking gas plants should also be required to retrofit to full CCS at least 15 years after their commissioning.

Policy mechanisms that provide predictability around ongoing carbon costs and ensure an ongoing return on investment should be implemented.

Finally, the mandate of the newly established Clean Energy Finance Corporation should be extended to allow the financing of technologies that have negative net emissions, such as CCS with bio-energy.

All of the environment groups and think tanks in the CCS network vigorously back renewable energy policies and carbon laws but also conclude CCS has a valuable role to play in the climate mitigation portfolio. It’s a challenging conclusion for many but it is just one of the many challenges we all need to confront with the growing urgency for action.

John Connor is CEO of the The Climate Institute.

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