Global effort to capture carbon emissions takes hit

Projects aimed at a process to mitigate climate change declined, despite some long-term progress, study reveals

The International Energy Agency says carbon capture is necessary in the fight against climate change as long as fossil fuel and carbon-intensive industries remain a major part of the global economy.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Despite progress in the global effort to capture carbon emissions from power plants and industrial facilities, the number of global large-scale projects aimed at capturing carbon declined from 75 to 65 in 2012, according to a new report.

The Global CCS Institute, an environmental research organization established with funding by the Australian government in 2009, said Thursday that while efforts to implement carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques witnessed some new projects in the last year, the net decrease was a worrisome trend for long-term efforts to reduce the negative impact of climate change.

"Urgent action is required to limit, alleviate and, where possible, reverse the damaging effects of the rise in temperature of our planet,” Brad Page, CEO of the institute, said in a press release. "Crucially, this means employing, without favor, appropriate climate change mitigation technologies — and this includes CCS."

CCS is the process by which emissions from a CO2-emitting source like a power plant are caught and stored — often under a geologic formation — before they are able to enter the earth’s atmosphere. It is seen as a possible way to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says CCS is a necessary component in the fight against climate change as long as fossil fuel and carbon-intensive industries remain a major part of the global economy.

For CCS to be an adequate part of climate change mitigation by 2050, says the IEA, as much as 70 percent of future projects would have to be deployed in countries outside of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the international body comprising 34 of the world's leading economic nations.

Currently, the U.S. and China lead all countries with large-scale integrated CCS projects, at 20 and 12, respectively — 32 of the 65 total worldwide. Both countries also lead the world in CO2 emissions.

But the Global CCS Institute says that outside of China, which it says could be a world guide for CCS going forward, new projects are generally not being proposed.

The organization says the biggest impediment to successful global implementation of the process is the lack of public policy support, a discouraging reality for CCS proponents, given that the global effort to mitigate climate change is becoming more urgent.

Myles Allen, an Oxford University professor and climate change expert, said that considering the rapidly expanding demand for energy and fossil fuel, CCS development is an imperative.

"We will eventually need large-scale CCS — no two ways about it,” he said. “And it would be far safer, and cheaper, to deploy this technology steadily as we approach the limit than to deploy it in a panic in 30 years’ time."

Allen was heavily involved with last month’s report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The report found that if the world is to keep temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius — a U.N. benchmark above which increases are considered catastrophic — the historical cap on carbon emissions must not exceed 1 trillion tons. So far, half that amount has already been reached, and it is rapidly rising with worldwide economic development and increasing levels of energy consumption.

In the U.S., CCS could be aided by last month’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiling of the Obama administration's new restrictions on power plant emissions, which affect coal power plants the most. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said any new power plants created in the U.S. would need to utilize CCS to lessen the emissions burden.

"We now have enough information and confidence to say that a CCS option with coal meets the test of being the best system of emission reduction," David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air Program, told Reuters at the time of the new policy.

The EPA estimates that up to 40 percent of CO2 emissions result from electric power generation. According to the Global CCS Institute, current CCS projects in the U.S. have the same impact on reducing CO2 emissions as taking 8 million cars off the road.

Thursday’s report comes a day after a study published in the scientific journal Nature contended that as early as 2047, the average global temperature is likely to reach a “new normal,” with expected average ranges to exceed what had been the hottest end of the spectrum between 1860 and 2005.

"The results shocked us. Regardless of the scenario, changes will be coming soon," lead author Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii said of the study. "Within my generation, whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past."

With additional reporting by Reuters

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