Can carbon capture and storage save the world?
A range of techno-fixes are turning climate-damaging emissions into ingredients in energy production and manufacturing processes
Carbon control: a farmer grazes sheep by a power plant near China’s Changzhi, in Shanxi province. The amount of coal being burned in China has fallen for the first time since 2000 – good news for the environment. Photograph: Reuters
With 2014 likely to end up one of the hottest years on record and greenhouse gas emissions still rising, attention is turning to carbon capture and storage as one of the “techno-fixes” the world will need if there’s to be a chance of limiting global warming at two degrees.
Carbon capture and storage – or CCS, as it’s known – is seen by the International Energy Agency has as a “necessity for a world hooked on fossil fuels” while the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has also endorsed CCS as crucial to achieving the temperature target.
That’s why the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change provided a platform for a “technical expert meeting” on CCS at the climate talks in Bonn – a decision that was criticised by environmental groups including Friends of the Earth.
The technology for carbon capture is available today, and can be applied to any large-scale emissions process, including coal-fired power generation, gas and oil production, and manufacture of products such as cement, steel and pulp paper, according to the UN convention.
Compressed for transportation
CCS aims to prevent large amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by capturing the gas produced by large industrial plants, compressing it for transportation and then injecting it deep into a rock formation, where it would be permanently stored.
The world’s first CCS power station was inaugurated in Canada only last October. The €923 million Boundary Dam project in Saskatchewan involves injecting about 90 per cent of its carbon dioxide into nearby oilfields to “enhance oil recovery”, with the rest pumped into a saline aquifer.
Statoil has been trying out CCS at its Sleipner natural gas field in the North Sea since 1996. Since then, it has injected some 14 million tons of carbon dioxide into geological caverns and “successfully” proved that it is technically feasible, the company’s Olav Skalmerås said in Bonn.
Shell Canada’s Quest project in Alberta, where oil is being controversially extracted from tar sands, will see some 20 million tons of carbon dioxide put into storage. But it only made sense, delegates were told by Shell’s David Hone, because Alberta put a price on carbon.
Britain also sees CCS as “essential to our low-carbon future”, according to Matthew Billson, of the UK’s department of energy and climate change. Given that it would continue to be dependent on fossil fuels, CCS was “the cheapest way of fighting climate change”.
Novel approaches to carbon capture are also being tested. One €8.75 million project in Iceland called CarbFix, which has EU support, involves capturing carbon dioxide from a power station, dissolving it in water and effectively “mineralising” it as basalt for injection into volcanic fields.
At Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute, they have developed a project called Heclot, which is designed to capture carbon dioxide and calcify it for use in the cement industry, in a closed-loop system. It is calculated to cut the cost of CCS by nearly half, from $45 to $26 per ton.
It also turns out that carbon dioxide can be used in industrial processes, by recycling it to make plastic and other products. US company Novemer has developed catalysts that use a combination of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and propylene oxide to make sustainable polymer panels.
Equally innovative is Newlight Technologies, which makes smartphone cases partly using recycled carbon dioxide, and DyeCoo Textile Systems – a partner of sportswear companies Nike and Adidas – which uses the gas under extreme pressure as a substitute for water in dyeing textiles.
Proposed new rules by the US Environmental Protection Agency would require American utilities to install CCS technology in all newly built coal-fired power plants. But this would need to be backed up by an adequate carbon price to make the technology economically viable.
Perhaps the best news lately has nothing to do with finding techno-fixes for global warming: the amount of coal being burned in China has fallen for the first time since 2000. It is down by less than 2 per cent for the first nine months of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013.
The decline, spotted in official figures by Greenpeace energy analysts, may seem marginal, but it contrasts with an annual growth rate in coal-burning of 5-10 per cent in the past decade or so. And they see this turnaround as a “window of opportunity” to cut carbon emissions.
“It may not be the peak yet, but it is a sign that China is moving away from coal,” Lauri Myllyvirta, of Greenpeace told the Guardian. “We are seeing so many different data showing a consistent pattern that we have much more confidence this is really happening.”
And 2014 also saw a record 20 gigawatts of new wind farms installed in China, a trend that is being driven as much by the need to reduce chronic air pollution in cities as it is by climate change policies; many of the 30,000 runners in last month’s Beijing Marathon wore face masks.
GAS CAPTURE: METHANE AND MORE
Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas that needs to be “captured”. Non-carbon dioxide gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons can be even more deadly: methane, for example, is 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide in trapping heat.
“International efforts to reduce these pollutants can have immediate impact and slow the increase in global temperatures expected over the next 35 years by as much as 0.6 degrees while benefiting people’s health and the production of food,” according to the UN.
Gas flaring at oil wells is a source of methane but can be reduced by compressors. Similarly, methane from landfill sites can be captured and used as fuel for transport.
Even in agriculture, where the main source of methane is livestock, changes can dramatically reduce emissions through solid waste recovery. Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative is cited by the UN as a good example.
Nitrous oxide pollution can also be tackled. A study by the UN Environment Programme found a 20 per cent rise in nitrogen-use efficiency would cost less than €10 billion annually, but would save €18 billion in annual fertiliser cost.