Known as carbon capture and sequestration or CCS, it is the answer that “clean coal” patronizers seek. It is an answer for the carbon intensive oil sands. It is the only answer for coal-fired power plants if they are continue to exist.
By the beginning of 2014 many scientists are predicting that CO2 levels will rise to 400 parts per million. This will be the highest level of airborne carbon observed since the dawn of the Holocene. And the spike in CO2 will have come all in a very short window of time, the last 200 years.
But 400 is not where CO2 levels will stop based on current carbon output. World Energy Outlook in its 2013 projections expects current and forecasted levels of fossil fuel consumption to eventually cause CO2 emissions to reach 450 ppm by as early as 2035. How does that level of CO2 translate to overall atmospheric warming? The answer is a mean average increase of 2 Celsius (3.8 Fahrenheit) degrees. I must emphasize that this is an optimistic projection. There are other scenarios that point to more drastic outcomes. For example, if we continue current trends then energy usage globally will double with concomitant increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The world would then see mean temperature rises of 6 Celsius (10 Fahrenheit). And if we were to see the results of agreements at Copenhagen and Rio de Janeiro come to fruition (post-Kyoto Protocol) then we might see global temperatures cap after rising 4 Celsius (7.2 Fahrenheit). Anyway you look at it what mean temperature rises means for polar regions will be far different if we are to go by what we have witnessed to date. Because the poles, more the Arctic then the Antarctic, have seen dramatic temperature increases since the 1980s while atmospheric Co2 levels have steadily climbed.
So getting back to the need for CCS it would seem logical that such technology be implemented to hold back the rise in atmospheric CO2. But so far CCS projects are turning out to be unattractive to industry and even government players. Witness the recent pulling of the plug on Canadian CCS projects for example. Why?
- Because CCS is expensive whether it is capturing exhaust from a coal or gas-fired power plant, or removing CO2 emissions as part of a process associated with the production of cement, fertilizer, steel or other products. This is true for new production facilities and even more costly if retrofitting existing plants. The table that follows (click on it to enlarge) from a 2011 Global CCS Institute study shows the significant increase in engineering costs for coal-fired power plants with and without CCS. The difference is dramatic.
- The cost of recovering CO2 from current and planned projects amounts to $38 to $107 per ton according to studies done by the Global CCS Institute referenced in point 1. Compare that to a progressive carbon tax as part of a cap and trade system, from $10 to $50 a ton and you can see why industry is reluctant to participate without massive government subsidies.
So are we kidding ourselves in attempting to implement CCS solutions? Probably.
Better ways to deal with rising CO2 levels are ones that we are already implementing:
- A switch from fossil fuels to renewable clean energy sources. This means first and foremost the ending of coal-fired energy production establishing a firm end date. Next on the list will be oil and then finally natural gas. Closing coal-fired power plants is being implemented in Ontario where the last plant is in the process of being shut down this year.
- Looking at new nuclear technology that produces less radioactive waste.
- A smarter grid to manage distribution of energy more effectively.
- Conservation, probably the most important of these four points. Because through developing more efficient transportation technology, better designed and retrofitted homes, and the same with industrial and commercial building sites, we will dramatically reduce consumption and slow down the growth of energy demand.