Meeting growing energy needs around the globe whilst slashing carbon emissions is a monumental challenge. SSCP-DTP student Clea Kolster discusses a new report that provides fresh evidence of how technologies including carbon capture and storage can help.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), the IPCC and the World Bank all agree: carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is key to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change whilst minimising the impact on world economies.
The Sustainable Gas Institute’s recent white paper, Can technology unlock unburnable carbon?, goes one step further by showing how CCS can give us access to the energy locked up in fossil fuels without jeopardising the future of the planet.
Here are 5 things you need to know about unlocking unburnable carbon:
1. What is ‘unburnable carbon’?
This refers to the remaining fossil fuels that would cause global warming above 2°C if they were extracted and burnt for industry or power. In order to stand a reasonable chance of keeping the temperature warming below this level, scientists estimate we can emit an additional 1,000 Gt of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which would last roughly 30 years at current rates. Unburnable carbon is also known as ‘stranded assets’ or fossil fuel reserves that are known and commercially (or economically) extractable but would surpass the carbon budget if consumed.
2. Why is it critical to unlock more carbon?
Global energy demand is skyrocketing as nations around the world build more fossil fuel power plants and populations in many developing countries grow at unprecedented rates. While energy demand has been declining in the European Union – the UK and Portugal achieved their first coal-free periods during the last week – it continues to increase year by year in the rest of the world in parallel with a growing appetite for fossil fuels. Consumption of coal in India increased by 11.1% in 2014 for example – the highest increase on record.
Whilst a transition to renewable energy sources is the only viable long-term solution to meeting global energy needs, fossil fuels are likely to remain a substantial part of the energy mix until the end of the century. Hence, it is critical to reduce the amount of fossil fuel reserves that would otherwise be stranded by limiting global carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel usage.
3. CCS can make 37% of unburnable carbon burnable by 2050.
CCS is widely considered to be one of the key ‘direct approach’ technologies to unlocking unburnable carbon. Other solutions include improving the energy efficiency of power plants and switching from coal power generation to gas (with the latter resulting in 50% less emissions). CCS involves capturing CO2 from power plants and industrial plants, then purifying and compressing the gas for transportation to a storage site (view infographic). Applying CCS to fossil fuel powered plants would allow them to generate energy whilst locking away 85-90% of the CO2 produced, thereby reducing the amount of unburnable carbon by approximately 400 GtCO2.
4. Models show that CCS will unlock more carbon by the end of the century.
The results discussed in this report are drawn from integrated assessment models (IAMs). These are used to show various scenarios of technology deployment, energy usage and other elements of global change, and the effect these have on climate change. This report considers scenarios from models that deploy CCS from 2020 whilst limiting atmospheric CO2 concentration to 450ppm, with a high probability of keeping temperature rise below 2°C. The IAMs considered in this study revealed that given the early uptake of CCS and assuming its deployment continues to ramp up past 2050, the proportion of fossil fuel reserves that can be burnt by 2100 increases from 33% without CCS to 65% with CCS.
5. CCS is expensive upfront, but the investment is better value than paying for an overshot carbon budget later on.
It’s clear that CCS is needed in order to secure a realistic chance of avoiding substantial temperature increase around the world, yet the technology is still not deployed on anywhere near the scale at which it needs to be. The reasons behind this sluggish uptake do not relate to the technology itself; instead, a lack of market incentive and commonly held misconceptions are the key obstacles that CCS must overcome. Upfront costs of CCS are currently high, with only 13 projects in operation globally. However, the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change once the carbon budget has been exceeded would be 4-8 times higher than the current cost of adopting CCS, leaving no economically viable excuse for not deploying it.
Find out more in the Sustainable Gas Institute’s white paper, Can technology unlock unburnable carbon?