To rescue the climate we need an international plan to capture carbon


Presidents Xi and Obama talked recently about tackling climate change. That is encouraging. Avoiding climate change requires China and the US to agree on what to do. It would have been great news if they had agreed that deploying carbon capture and storage (CCS) is urgent. For, despite it being key, progress on its deployment has been unacceptably slow. We need to realise why and we must urgently get it going.

CCS alone isn’t sufficient for tackling change but it is essential. We will not kick the fossil fuel habit any time soon. For the coming decades, fossil fuels will be relatively cheap and plentiful. In a world hungry for energy, fossil fuels will be burned. Even with essential and major improvements in energy efficiency, cost reduction on renewable energy and a price on carbon, fossil fuels will not be squeezed out quickly enough.

Here’s a sobering statistic for anyone who thinks that renewable energy will completely get rid of fossil fuels. Globally, wind and solar energy grew by an extraordinary multiple of 7 times between 2000 and 2010. But growth in gas and coal based energy was 40 times that of wind and solar over the same 10 year period. Our priorities have to be based on a proper sense of the scale of the world energy system.

The abundance of fossil fuels is a boon for energy but a curse for the environment. Unless CCS is used to curb carbon emissions from the world’s 3,000 or so coal and gas fired power plants and a host of other energy intensive industries, our weather will be disrupted. The disruption will undermine food production and damage infrastructure. The costs of climate damage will very probably be greater than the costs of curbing emissions. And those costs will fall more on poorer people and on future generations.

If CCS is so obviously needed, why has progress been so slow and why have governments not given it top priority? Because the voice of the opponents has been much stronger than the voice of the proponents. CCS is a technology with few friends and apparently no natural owners. Some people don’t like the idea of CCS perpetuating fossil fuels. For the sake of the climate, I ask them to be more realistic. And advocates of alternative energies have been smarter at promoting their technologies, partly by suggesting CCS doesn’t work. This negativity has slowed CCS down and opponents are now conveniently attributing that to underlying technical problems rather than lack of concerted policy support.

But CCS does work. As the International Energy Agency recently pointed out in their ‘CCS Technology Roadmap’ the  component parts of CCS have been practiced for a long time. Three carbon capture plants have been running in the US for decades and there is an established CO2 pipeline network in the US of about 6,000 kilometers. A CCS project has been running on a Norwegian offshore gas field for over 15 years. This is established technology, albeit there is scope for new approaches at lower cost and, as the IEA point out, to integrate the component parts into large-scale demonstration projects.

The IEA also analysed where CCS is likely to be deployed out to 2050. The findings highlight the importance of all major economies pursuing CCS, whether developed of developing.  The IEA estimates that by 2050 the scale of CCS needed in each of these economies will be broadly proportionate to their sizes of population.

Meanwhile the voice of the natural owners of CCS, the gas and coal producers, has been muted. Probably they find it hard to advocate a technology that would significantly increase the costs of using their product, even if CCS is a cost competitive way of producing low carbon energy. It would be better if the gas and coal producers could recognise that their product cannot have a long-term future without CCS.

With such limited support it’s not surprising that governments have not had CCS at the top of their agendas for tackling climate change. But I think there is an additional and very significant reason. Embarking on CCS is crossing the climate change Rubicon. This goes well beyond dipping political toes in low carbon energy at an R&D scale. Committing to CCS is, in substance, committing to action to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. We all know this is essential but governments have not yet agreed to do it. CCS along with nuclear and renewables must be in the front line of agreed international action to tackle climate change. We need diversification to mitigate technology, cost and security risks.

Just to be clear, this plea about the vital importance of CCS is not to condemn renewable energy. We need both.  I’m arguing that CCS is urgent and necessary. I’m not arguing it’s sufficient. 

What about the costs? A recent report from the UK’s Energy Technologies Institute suggests that using CCS would save the UK about £40 billion a year by mid-century compared with other technologies for meeting our low carbon energy goals. Of course these are estimates but they show that CCS has considerable potential value.

But how do we get CCS going? It is hard to see the big economies going it alone in a serious way. Concerns about economic competitiveness mean that countries will only act at sufficient scale if they are confident they are acting together.  That’s why international agreement is vital. And the incentive for the major emitting nations is that their collective action will avoid the worst of climate damage to their economies.

I would argue that getting agreement among the major emitting nations for real and early action on CCS is critical. In the short run such agreement on CCS could be more important and, though difficult, perhaps more likely than demanding a general agreement among all nations about emissions reductions by 2050.

The major emitting economies of the United States, the Eurozone, India and China must work on a stepwise deal where confidence is built over time. Agreement can be developed in a number of areas -  technologies for bringing costs down; requiring fitting CCS on all new gas and coal plants after a certain date; and the timing of retrofitting CCS to existing plants. These agreements can usefully be connected to putting a price on carbon emissions and connecting carbon markets globally.

Each country will devise its own policy for implementing CCS. But a combination of regulation, increased R&D support and pricing mechanisms can be used over the next 20 years.  The UK, for example, is creating these mechanisms for itself in the current Energy Bill.

Eventually, all the low carbon technologies, whether renewable, nuclear or fossil, should have matured so that market forces, including the cost of carbon, can make the decisions without regulatory intervention.

Everyone who wants to avoid the damage of climate change should be pushing for CCS as a top priority. The IEA concluded likewise and have recently urged governments and industry to ensure that the incentive and regulatory frameworks are in place to deliver upwards of 30 operating CCS projects by 2020 across a range of processes and industrial sectors. 

We should continue to fast track the development and deployment of renewable energy and prioritise the mass roll out of energy efficiency. But as we pass the 400ppm level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the arithmetic of climate change is becoming starker by the day.  We can’t decarbonise our economies fast enough without CCS.  An international rescue plan for CCS is needed.