As a PhD student attending COP21, I arrived eager to take it all in: the politics, the science, the urgent desire to save the planet, the people who are most at risk because of climate change and last, but not least, the hope to hear encouragement for my field of research: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
The technology behind CCS is finally at a point where its feasibility is unquestionable; it is proven with several projects around the world and is commercially deployed on a large scale in Saskatchewan, Canada. But, CCS remains expensive and just a few weeks ago the UK government broke its pledge to award £1 billion to one of two full scale CCS projects in the UK. This came as a big surprise and disappointment to both the academics who focus their research on this technology in the UK (myself included) and UK-based companies with CCS-specific tools and products.
During my week at COP21 I got the chance to hear contrasting views on CCS from around the world.
The solution to clean fossil fuel power & negative emissions
Mathew Chigiyal, a representative from the Federation of Micronesia (a country made up of 607 islands and just over 100,000 people) was very excited to hear about how the research that we do at Imperial and at the Grantham Institute could help his nation avoid going underwater. When I told him about the fact that with CCS they could continue to generate “cheap” power from fossil fuels but avoid emitting at least 90% of the greenhouse gas that is most harmful to them – carbon dioxide – he was very pleased and keen on advising his government to invest in R&D for CCS.
The Chinese and Taiwanese view on CCS is also very positive. One Chinese delegate (who was also an Imperial alumnus) assured me that CCS was a big part of her country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) communicated to the UNFCCC secretariat]. She also mentioned that although a lot of investment now goes towards their own R&D, China is urging developed countries to lead the way and provide the transfer of technology such as gas turbines and CCS.
Meet the CCS skeptics
Constantly surrounded by other CCS pioneers and enthusiasts in my daily CCS driven PhD life, I had never actually realized how many people are skeptical about CCS. Early in the week, a delegate from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) shared his views: “CCS is the old agenda! No government is going to do it and no company is going to pay for it.” I could not believe my ears!
When I told a delegate from South Africa that I work on CCS he proceeded to dub the technology “the red herring”. Another observer from French think tank Sauvons le Climat (Let’s Save the Climate) told me he thought CCS was absolutely not viable and that nuclear energy was essentially the answer to everything.
I also spoke to a few people from the Netherlands at different points during the week and each one of them had the same disenchanted look in their face as soon as I mentioned that I work on CCS. Most of them thought that deploying CCS would just perpetuate the use of fossil fuels: coupling coal-fired power plants with CCS transforms this otherwise “dirty” energy into a “clean” low carbon means of energy production by sequestering the greenhouse gas.
Although it was interesting to hear critics’ opinions, I was eager to eliminate some of their misconceptions of CCS. Take for example the effect that CCS can have on industrial plants such as cement, iron and steel production plants. Each of these processes inherently produces carbon dioxide and almost 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions we are so desperately trying to reduce come from these industries. Capturing the CO2 emitted and safely storing the gas deep underground using CCS can eliminate a majority of these emissions, which is exactly what I replied to those who only thought of the use of CCS for power plants.
Another common criticism of CCS was its cost. Yes, CCS is currently very expensive but this applies to any technology that is at the first-of-a-kind stage, which is why it is crucial to invest in deploying more large-scale plants like the one at Boundary Dam in Canada. Quickly reaching the n-th-of-a-kind stage, the countries that hold the CCS expertise will be able to boost their GDP’s enormously in exporting this expertise.
Being able to deploy CCS at a lower cost on power plants is also crucial for developing countries that have cheap but dirty coal or for those nations who have very recently invested in brand new fossil fuel power generation plants. If these were forced to shut down, fragile economies without a cheap means to generate energy would shrink and maybe even drown. There will definitely need to be a mix of low carbon energy solutions and this will undoubtedly shift our economies, but deploying cost effective CCS as a part of this mix can prevent shattering changes to certain fossil reliant economies.
These points were also conveyed during a side event at COP21 with all the usual CCS advocates: Statoil, IEAGHG, Carbon Capture and Storage Association, CO2GeoNet and Saskpower. However, getting the chance to actually convey these facts and hopes for CCS on a one to one basis and removing misconceptions about CCS to those individuals who would otherwise not even bother attending a CCS event did feel rewarding!
Hopes for COP21
All the while, whether they were CCS optimists or pessimists, every single person that I met was hungry for change and willing to do what it takes to make that change happen in terms of our energy usage and all-around way of life. Every single person felt implicated in the climate change problem at hand and was scared of what would come next if we didn’t manage to come to an international agreement by the end of the two weeks.
Although 196 countries have now agreed to limit warming to 2°C or under, we do not all agree on how we will make the changes that are needed to achieve this. However, research around finding optimum combinations of technologies and solutions to limit our global average surface temperature to 2C is growing (see AVOID 2 research) and must continue to do so with collaboration in a wide range of disciplines from science & engineering to policy and economics, psychology and sociology, the arts, medicine and education, in order to establish a clear framework for change.