Engineering an alternative to a fossil carbon overdose

News editor

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.