By Ian French, Industry Analyst at Frost & Sullivan
Jan. 8, 2003 — The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report of 1992 included confirmation that perceived changes were occurring to the global climate due to human energy generation and consumption.
In the next century, a continued increase in carbon emissions and rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere is certain unless major changes are made in the way we produce and use energy and deal with the carbon by-product. But how can we change a system that has taken a hundred years or so to put in place? The global energy system is immense and riding on it is the world’s economy and the very fabric of society.
The complexity of its nature, including most modern social institutions, suggests that it will resist any rapid change and must therefore be managed adequately until realistic alterations can be fully implemented through evolution of practice not paradigm change – a recipe for economic chaos.
Spurred by IPCC consensus, more than 160 nations met in Kyoto to negotiate binding limitations on greenhouse gases emitted by the developed nations. The outcome of the meeting was the Kyoto Protocol, in which the developed nations agreed to limit their emissions by 5.2%, relative to levels emitted during 1990 between 2008 and 2012. However, it is now in serious danger of failure due to Russian procrastination over implementing the accord. In order to begin in 2008, the protocol must achieve the support of nations accounting for 55% of global emissions of CO2. Currently, it has 44% and requires Russia’s 17%. The US, accounting for 36% of emissions, has already refused to back Kyoto, saying it is a regulatory straitjacket that will harm industry and economic growth.
Tools to help nations achieve the Kyoto-stipulated reductions include the world’s first emissions trading scheme although many sceptics are convinced that the goals have always been ‘pie in the sky’. This view has gained credence over the last few years as the EU, the main active proponent of Kyoto, set emission reduction targets in its 1997 White Paper only to see its goals disappear into the distance as its ineffectual policies sputtered out. Now, with the problem of global warming becoming even more menacing with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, a strategic unified approach to address the issues is urgently required. Whether this will come about is difficult to say but what is clear is that all nations generally agree that action must be taken. This is especially true when doubt exists as to whether the Kyoto Protocol is enough to prevent, or even slow, global warming anyway.
Emission Reduction Tools
Increased energy efficiency is an obvious tool – both in production and consumption – to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel combustion, as is an increase in the use of renewable energy and low carbon technologies. In addition, the most recent tool under investigation is carbon sequestration. Because emission reduction goals will be difficult to achieve without new initiatives, a growing consensus points toward a multilateral approach to include all available measures provided they are technologically sound and, above all, safe.
Four types of carbon sequestration are currently under investigation. These include:
1. Injecting liquid CO2 into geologic formations.
2. Fixing CO2 into the terrestrial biosphere by vegetation for storage in biomass and soils.
3. The direct injection of CO2 to the oceans at depths greater than 1km.
4. Using micro-organisms to manage carbon in the oceans through the engineering of or enhanced use of organisms to sequester carbon dioxide.
All of the above have potential for significant development although it is only the first option that offers relatively rapid results with a reasonably high degree of safety without the potential for destabilising ecosystems.
On first impression, geologic sequestration could be seen by some to be ducking the real issues of pollution reduction but it could also be said that it’s wrong to emit CO2 into the atmosphere especially if the impacts are greater than injecting it into geologic formations. An alternative view is that the fuel is extracted from the earth, the energy is removed then it’s put back.
Taking the geologic sequestration method as the one most likely to be implemented first, how would it work? Well, firstly, as an end-of-pipe remedy, this method fits nicely into current perceptions of how we deal with pollution. It might cost something but it’s usually the most cost-effective method of pollution control and can be achieved without causing unprecedented changes to our economic and social systems.
Secondly, it could be used as a bridging strategy to give much needed time for other technologies to compete, or be developed, to enable the economic and social evolution to a less carbon-reliant energy system. This could basically be achieved through raising the cost of electricity production by fossil fuels – by around 50% – and attaching a price to carbon emissions from industry, perhaps $100 per tonne.
Renewables would become far more economic and the money could be used to fund carbon liquefaction plants, pipeline infrastructures and sequestration projects. Furthermore, the argument that pumping CO2 underground will allow the biggest polluters to carry on polluting doesn’t hold water because they will have to pay huge amounts to do so.
However, this approach would also promote nuclear energy, an issue that many would be concerned about especially as many plants currently in operation are slated to be retired in the next several decades.
For example, of the approximately 100 US nuclear reactors currently in operation, 40 have licenses that will expire by 2015. To date, no licenses have been renewed and no nuclear power plants are slated for construction.
But what of the logistic concerns for geologic sequestration? Well, the oil industry has been pumping CO2 underground for years for the purpose of enhancing oil recovery so it could be said that larger scale projects are the next step. However, it must be remembered that the global oil industry is conducted on a massive scale and carbon sequestration will be relatively small.
Currently, the US has over 2,000 miles of CO2 pipelines, much of this where they’re injecting CO2 for oil recovery and in regional networks for the supply of CO2. Nevertheless, more developments would need to be undertaken but this would not be a huge problem.
Many commercial companies exist world-wide that can construct pipelines to transport very large volumes of CO2 from plants connected to industrial or power generating sites. Not only this, shipping and trucking of liquid CO2 is possible for smaller volumes. The technological and logistical fix could be achieved quite quickly in this regard but the main obstacles to moving toward this method would be dealing with the political issues, which could take more than 10 years to sort out.
What is clear is that we should not solve one problem to cause another. Every potential tool we have to combat climate change should be evaluated. Each will have positive and negative factors associated but these need to be reasoned through in a conscious way. Without a multifaceted approach we have little hope of achieving the emission reductions necessary to make a real difference. In this context, sequestration, by whatever method, is worth studying and implementing if the benefits outweigh the concerns. The IPCC is meeting now to discuss this important issue and it intends to publish a report in March 2005.
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Frost & Sullivan would like to thank Principal Researcher Howard Herzog of the Carbon Sequestration Initiative at the MIT Laboratory for Energy & the Environment. Go to http://sequestration.mit.edu for further information.
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