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Engineering an alternative to a fossil carbon overdose

The latest report* from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it very clear that its down to engineers to help avert catastrophes that may occur if the increase in global mean temperature is not limited to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In its report – Climate change 2014: Mitigation of climate change - the IPCC states that efforts to reduce climate change have had little effect on the generation of greenhouse gases, which are calculated to have grown more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades.

The report says: ‘Scenarios show that to have a likely chance of limiting the increase in global mean temperature to two degrees Celsius, means lowering global greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 per cent compared with 2010 by mid-century, and to near - zero by the end of this century. Ambitious mitigation may even require removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.’

To achieve these targets, the organisation says an array of technological measures, changes in behaviour, and major institutional change will be required.

According to the report, greenhouse gas emissions from energy supplies alone can be reduced by replacing current world average coal-fired power plants with modern, highly efficient natural gas combined-cycle power plants, or combined heat and power plants.

Further gains could be achieved with reductions from transport, buildings, industry, land use, and human settlements.

‘Reducing energy use would give us more flexibility in the choice of low-carbon energy technologies, now and in the future. It can also increase the cost-effectiveness of mitigation measures,’ said Ramon Pichs-Madruga, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III.

Better use of land through afforestation would draw CO2 from the atmosphere, and the resultant biomass could be used for electricity generation, provided carbon dioxide capture and storage facilities were available.

‘However, as of today this combination is not available at scale, permanent underground carbon dioxide storage faces challenges and the risks of increased competition for land need to be managed,’ says the IPCC.

Reacting to the report, Prof Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the Edinburgh University, said: ‘The UK talks positively about what must be done, and has achieved a great deal in analysis and regulation, but lags behind in practical action. 

‘Being prosecuted for air quality, halting the carbon price escalator, extending the life of polluting coal power plants, failing to improve energy efficiency for the poorest households, and allowing new gas power plant to be built without carbon capture – these are all signs that the UK evades long-term decisions and has yet to take a firm grip on the solutions. 

‘Energy is not the problem; there are many ways to generate energy.  The problem is an overdosing on fossil carbon. There is a global carbon budget – that is the amount we can emit before sliding into dangerous climate change – and humans are halfway through their carbon party.

‘Extraction and combustion of fossil carbon can only continue if that easy energy is matched, tonne for tonne, by the recapture and storage of carbon. It doesn’t matter if that is by Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), by Bio Energy Capture and Storage (BECCS), by direct air capture, or by enhanced mineral weathering – all of these will be needed.

‘The important things are to make a start – and sooner than 2030 – embedding carbon budgeting into every business and every behaviour.’

With CCS firmly in mind, an event taking place in London this week aims to tackle the challenges inherent in the technology, such as deciding on the best geological location to safely store CO2, and assessing the risks of migration and leakage.

Predicated on the fact that fossil fuels will continue to be a significant source of energy in the next few decades, the event - Geological Carbon Storage: Meeting the Global Challenge - includes speakers from Europe, North America and Australia and concludes with a panel discussion on discussion on the policy implications of CCS.

Looking a few weeks ahead, the East of England Energy Group (EEEGR) is heading to Westminster on May 13 to meet business secretary Vince Cable and energy secretary Ed Davey.

East Anglia - with its Southern North Sea gas fields, the world’s biggest offshore windfarms, and the likelihood of a new nuclear power station at Sizewell – is attracting major private sector investment. EEEGR is, however, keen remind Cable and Davey that this investment must be matched by support and incentives from government itself.

* For the report, about 1200 scenarios from scientific literature have been analysed. These scenarios were generated by 31 modelling teams around the world to explore the economic, technological and institutional prerequisites and implications of mitigation pathways with different degrees of ambition.


Readers' comments (20)

  • It is not always engineering that provides the right answers.
    The soil of healthy grasslands are the best carbon storage locations on this planet. The solution is to reverse the desertification of grasslands. See the TED talk os Allan Savory.

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  • If you believe what the IPCC says, you'll believe anything.

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  • All the engineering and environmental solutions have been around for decades. We could, for instance, cover parts of the major deserts with inexpensive solar-thermal plant, generate steam and pipe the electricity to wherever it's needed, using relatively old technology. Engineering is not the problem.
    What's needed is International Political Will, a commodity rarer than Unobtanium.

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  • Global warming is to be expected as the world is still coming out of the last ice age. As to carbon dioxide, what is the world's present population right now? They are hardly likely to accede to the request that they stop breathing. As the earth warms it should be possible to plant grass and trees in areas which were formerly too cold for plants to thrive. Basically the answer lies in the soil as it always does with anything related to agriculture. Engineering can always help of course but it will not be the complete answer.

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  • Totally agree with Carolyn Knight.

    See also Prof David McKay's free to download book "Sustainable Energy- without the hot air" at

    The DESERTEC concept for concentrated solar thermal power stations with cheap to produce heliostat controlled mirrors and molten salt as the thermal fluid allowing storage and 24 hour production of electricity in the MENA desert regions seems such a simple solution given that HVDC cables can transmit power with only 3% loss per 1000 km. It is only a short hop and a skip across the Med to the European grid and future superconducting cable developments will further improve transmission efficiencies. Such a scheme would also give a much needed economic boost to the MENA regions by providing local and regional power as well as power to export whilst weaning them from dependence on oil and gas revenues.

    Redundant steam turbine generating sets from soon to be closed coal fired power stations in Europe and elsewhere could even be transported lock, stock and barrel to the deserts to give such projects an economic boost. Transporting large, heavy pieces of mechanical kit across the world is commonplace these days particularly in the mining industry and the reuse of old but well maintained equipment seems, at least to me, to make economic as well as ecological sense.

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  • Let's not forget Methane [about 24 times the effect of CO2} and other greenhouse gases. Leakage from fracking, increase in release from ocean floor deposits as the temperatures increase.

    There are many other sources for Methane and other gases as well

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  • Temperature rise is measured in degrees Kelvin. Celcius, or Centigrade, is the measure of an actual temperature. Lets get it right.

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  • The expansion in the use of fossil fuels and the growth in CO2 production is surely based on the growing world populations. I find it strange that the IPCC has not brought this simple fact into their reports (not that I have read all their reports, so I could be incorrect in this).

    I read several years ago, that the increase in the worlds bovine population (for milk and meat, etc) was also a major factor in the increase in methane production, also a `greenhouse`gas. What is the IPCC attitude to this, has it been addressed. I do note however, that some farmers have installed equipment to collect and use methane as a fuel for electricty production.

    I also heard on a weekend news report, a comment from a Greenpeace spokesperson, that mitigating climate change would not cost a lot of money, in fact it would save us money. I find this sort of inane comment in a public forum to be highly misleading and giving strength to the chair bound eco warriors argument of `why are we not doing something now` when many of us in the energy business know that any `fixes` are too simplistic to be talked about in such a way.

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  • Why is it an inane comment? Increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions due to climate change (floods, droughts, heatwaves etc) are likely to cost us dearly. And as more of the already increasing global population demands access to our finite supplies of fossil fuels, their cost will go up as well.

  • Can we sweep aside the accountants, shareholders, MBAs and politicians who stand in the way of a more sustainable world?

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  • Wouldn't that be unfair to the accountants, shareholders, MBAs and politicians who want to live in a more sustainable world? JF

  • To the editor: in fact, hurricanes, floods and droughts, heatwaves etc have not become increasingly frequent. The records show that the last 20 years has been usually benign in this respect. It is not a good idea to blindly believe everything you are told even if it is in line with your beliefs.

    The IPCC summary for policymakers on page 13 admits that the world has not warmed since 1998 and then goes on to explain that there is much uncertainty in all the explanations that they have raised to explain why the models spectacularly failed to predict the lack of warming.

    In effect, the IPCC said: “The world has stopped warming and we know that climate models do not replicate cloud effects (that could easily explain the changes in temperature). We do not have an explanation for all this, but, in spite of the, we still believe that man-made carbon dioxide causes dangerous global warming. Trust us.”

    As noted before, the major institutions should have their own independent investigation into the credibility of climate models. As engineers use computer modelling in a situation where a mistake kills people, the engineering institutions are in an ideal situation to assess the credibility of climate models.

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