Climate Change: Let’s Bury The CO2 Problem

We can’t stop fossil fuels being burned: but we can easily act now to capture and store carbon with CCS technology Myles Allen The Guardian , Wednesday 5 June 2013 22.05 BST The carbon capture unit at Longannet power station, Scottish Power’s test project that will see CO2 emissions extracted from the coal-fired power plant. Photograph: Murdo Macleod How often have you read that we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to solve the problem of climate change – shortly followed by frustration and disappointment? People might expect me, as a climate scientist, to be disappointed by the failure of the attempt by the MP Tim Yeo to set an ambitious decarbonisation target in Tuesday’s debate on the energy bill. But I’m not. Not because I don’t think it is possible, or even desirable: get climate policy right, and I believe we will have largely decarbonised the UK power sector by 2030. And the UK, having led the world into this era of venting fossil carbon into the atmosphere, clearly has a duty to lead the world out of it. But ambitious targets backed by micromanagement of energy supply and demand are leading nowhere. What other country is going to attend a seminar on the UK energy bill and think, “Great idea, let’s do that”? They won’t even be able to read the powerpoint slides. The time is right to move forward on climate policy. This may seem a strange claim to environmentalists: the pace of warming is reported to have slowed , and projections are being revised downwards. At the same time, evidence continues to emerge that the world will only stop warming when we stop dumping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere altogether. The conditions for an effective global deal could hardly look worse. But the very fact that so many have come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the climate response is at the low end of the range of uncertainty provides us with an opportunity. Rather than targets for arbitrary years, we should aim for a policy explicitly linked to rising temperatures. If George Osborne really believes global warming has stopped, he would have no reason to object. Ideas like this have been floated before, but too often they amount to kicking the can down the road. There is no point in “wait and see” if – after another decade or two of research into solar and nuclear power, or a modest carbon tax – we find ourselves in exactly the same position as now: fossil fuels dominating global energy supplies and far cheaper than any alternative, only with another couple of hundred billion tonnes of fossil carbon dumped, irreversibly, into the atmosphere. The problem requires a different approach. We started out before the industrial revolution with roughly 4 trillion tonnes of fossil carbon underground. We have dumped about half a trillion tonnes into the atmosphere, and have up to a trillion more tonnes to go before we commit ourselves either to warming substantially greater than two degrees or some form of geoengineering. Given the extraordinary profits that can be made from the extraction and use of fossil fuels, no conceivable carbon tax or cap-and-trade regime is going to prevent a substantial fraction of those 2½ trillion “excess” tonnes from being burned somewhere, someday. Nor should it: what right have we today to prevent the citizens of India of the 2080s from touching their coal? So the only thing that really matters for long-term climate is that we deploy the technology – carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) – to bury carbon dioxide at the same rate we dig up fossil carbon before we release too much. Shell , in its latest scenarios, predicts that conventional measures will have only a modest impact on global emissions until about 2040, at which point rising concern about climate change will trigger a crash CCS programme, mopping up over 50% of extracted carbon in only a couple of decades. For the taxpayers and consumers of the 2040s – bearing the full cost, and risks, of such rapid deployment – this is the worst possible outcome. It is revealing that Shell’s scenario-builders envisage large-scale deployment of CCS only when it is made mandatory. Two of just a handful of demonstration CCS projects in Europe were recently cancelled, in part because of the collapse of the carbon price. But once you realise that CCS will be needed in the end, it would be far safer, simpler and fairer to mandate gradual deployment, so we can spread the cost over a couple of generations and provide time to evaluate and monitor the storage options. Anyone who extracts or imports fossil fuels should be required to sequester a steadily increasing fraction of their carbon. The maths could not be simpler: we need to increase the fraction of carbon we sequester by, on average, 1% for every 10bn tonnes of carbon dumped in the atmosphere. This is one regulation, affecting a handful of major companies. The policy can adapt to rising temperatures by adjusting the rate. So start at 1% per 10 billion tonnes and plan to adjust the rate when, say, temperatures reach 1.5 degrees above preindustrial. Crucially, this is not asking the impossible of future politicians. If the evolving evidence suggests we need to treble the rate of CCS deployment sometime around 2030, that would be feasible. Adjusting regulations on a single industry is something politicians find easy: as we found with the fuel tax escalator in the UK or the European emission trading scheme , when times get tough, supporting an energy tax or carbon price is not. Mandatory sequestration is transparent, fair, easy to monitor, and above all clearly addresses the problem. If we introduce it, it would be simple to request that our European and broader trading partners to do the same. Having solved the long-term climate problem, we might well need a complex energy bill to ensure security of supply in the 2030s, particularly given the uncertain cost of all that mandatory sequestration. That might well involve subsidies to renewables to ensure we don’t become over-dependent on Russian gas. But it would be what it says on the tin: an energy bill. Climate change would have nothing to do with it. Taylor Scott International

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