Tuesday, 28 September 2010

No-Nonsense Teaser

So I'm in the final stages of writing the new, updated version of the No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change, due to be published by the New Internationalist early next year. The book is already being promoted on the NI website so, you know, there's no pressure or anything. I am completely calm and it's all under control. Yes.

Anyway, this is why I've been absent from this blog for a while, and will be for a bit longer; in the meantime, here's a little teaser from the upcoming book. It's my take on everyone's favourite climate wonder technology, Carbon Capture and Storage!


Wouldn’t it be great if we could just make all those pesky fossil fuel emissions disappear? If we could just suck the CO2 out of the power stations, steel works and tar sands refineries, bury it underground somewhere, and just keep on burning coal, gas and oil into the future? Wouldn’t that be a brilliant solution to all our problems?

Well, if you happen to live next to an opencast coal mine, tar sands extraction project, oil well or gas pipeline, probably not. But if we forget about all the people who are being negatively impacted by fossil fuel extraction and just concentrate on stopping climate change, wouldn’t it be a great idea?

Governments and energy companies certainly think so – they’ve been pouring time and money into “Carbon Capture and Storage” (CCS) research, and talking it up at every opportunity. Listening to pronouncements from energy and environment ministers in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia or China, you’d be forgiven for believing that this technology is just on the horizon and is about to solve all our climate change problems. Sadly, the reality isn’t quite so promising.

The technology does exist to capture CO2 from fossil-fuel burning on a small scale and then either store it in a tank or pump it underground, but scaling it up to the point where we can start sucking the carbon out of entire power plants is a whole other matter. Firstly, we’re talking about a lot of carbon dioxide. A typical coal-fired power station could easily emit around 8 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Capturing, liquefying, piping and storing that much gas would be a huge operation, and no-one yet knows if it could be made to work at all at that scale. Globally, humanity produces nearly 13 billion tonnes of CO2 per year from coal alone – are we really sure we can store all of that safely underground somewhere, for ever? It’s five times the volume of oil that we currently suck out of the ground , so just capturing 20% of our coal emissions would need new infrastructure roughly the same size as the entire global oil industry. Ouch.

Secondly, carbon capture looks set to be hugely expensive – all that extra infrastructure will takes lots of money and energy to build and maintain, and is likely to make the coal plants too expensive to run (this is why energy corporations have been trying to persuade governments to foot the bill for carbon capture). Thirdly, it could only ever be a partial solution, capturing 80-90% of the emissions from each power station, at best – and it would be no help at all with vehicles, home heating, deforestation, and all the other emissions sources.

All of this uncertainty means that working CCS – scaled-up, tried and tested carbon capture that could be safely fitted to a large power station - is still a long way off (if it’s ever going to happen at all). The most optimistic industry experts reckon it’ll arrive in 2030; others make it ten or twenty years later. In other words: way too late for avoiding runaway climate change. It looks like we need to stick to our original targets and keep the fossil fuels in the ground.

Despite this, governments and business keep talking about carbon capture as though it’s an imminent solution to everything. Cynical people like me can’t help noticing that this is a brilliant distraction tactic, allowing them to fob off public concern while continuing to burn coal and dig up the tar sands. Good old business-as-usual.

It’s a bit like: You’re driving towards a cliff edge, faster and faster. The people in the back seats are shouting at you to turn the car. You shout back, “It’s just not politically possible to change direction at this point! But don’t worry, I’m pretty sure these untested home-made bolt-on wings will be ready in time.”


PS To the mysterious "Sensibleman" who submitted a comment on my last blog post: I didn't publish it because it was just a collection of personal insults. I'm very happy to be challenged and criticised, but for goodness sake have a bit of imagination about it and don't just fling boring old ad hominen attacks around. Go on, have another go. I know you can do better.

- Brought to you by the Campaign To Make Internet Commenting A Bit Less Nasty and Pointless