Radical plans to capture carbon dioxide (C02) and store it in underground reservoirs, instead of belching it into the atmosphere, were outlined in Bonn yesterday as an essential element in the battle against climate change.
It is already happening in Norway, where Statoil's Sleipner natural gas field in the North Sea has been capturing CO2 since 1996. By the end of this year, 14 million tonnes of the climate-changing gas will have been injected into geological caverns.
Statoil’s Olav Skalmerås told a special session of the UN climate talks in Bonn that the Norwegian state-owned energy company had “successfully proved” that carbon capture and storage (CCS) was technically feasible and even economically viable.
David Hone, of Shell in Canada, stressed however that CCS only made sense if a realistic price was put on carbon – as it was in Alberta, where oil is being extracted from tar sands – and Shell's Quest project there would "store" 20 million tonnes of CO2.
Britain also sees CCS as "essential to our low-carbon future", according to Matthew Billson of the department of energy and climate change. "We think the cheapest way of fighting climate change is CCS," he told delegates from 170 countries. Even with renewables and nuclear power plants, such as the one planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset, Mr Billson said the UK would be reliant on fossil fuels for 60 per cent of its electricity production. Without CCS, energy costs would go up, he warned.
However, environmental organisations objected to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat even scheduling a special session on CCS, describing the technology as an “expensive, energy-hungry process that also poses new risks”.
They see it as “pandering to vested interests” in the fossil fuel sector, diverting attention from the principal challenge of reducing CO2 emissions worldwide in line with “the urgency of the latest climate science and the clear demands of people in the street”.
Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth said: "The UN seems to think the way to acknowledge that is to invite the coal industry to discuss unproven and expensive 'carbon capture' technology; that simply acts as a delay to the energy transformation needed."
Like so many others, Mr Rehman wants to see solid progress made in Bonn on a draft negotiating text to pave the way for December’s ministerial conference in Lima, Peru, leading ultimately to a universal agreement in Paris at the end of next year on how to tackle climate change.
All 196 countries involved in the process are supposed to prepare their “intended nationally determined contributions” to the final agreement by next April, to take effect in 2020, and also indicate how they are going to ramp up their efforts in the meantime.
With 2014 now likely to be one of the hottest years on record and the final volume of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest grim assessment due to be released on November 2nd, there is a growing sense among participants that time is running out.