Clean coal (CCS) and Climate Change

The announcement of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute at the G8 meeting by Mr. Rudd and President Obama and the support from 23 governments, 100 companies and with James Wolfensohn and Nicholas Stern on its advisory board was reported as the one positive feature of the meeting. Let us analyse whether this is positive or negative for the containment of green house emissions

DEA policy drafted in 2008   summarises our concerns about carbon capture and storage (CCS). It is speculative and even if successful is unlikely to prevent several warming thresholds. Present data suggest 2030 as the earliest date for implementation and commencement of any reduction in emissions

The size and cost of the research problem is formidable and has been assessed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by the International Energy Agency

The International Energy Agency (IEA) indicates that by 2030 the world requires more than 200 power plants fully equipped with CCS if warming is to be limited to 3 degrees (an unacceptable rise). The scale of the proposed carbon capture enterprise is such that by 2050 some 6000 underground carbon dioxide repositories, each receiving a million tones of CO2 a year, will need to be in operation to account for just 20 per cent of the required cuts in emissions.

There are other major concerns about CCS

The present emphasis on CCS and in particular the massive funding needed will be inclined to deflect action on the urgent need to reduce emissions by investing in renewable energy.

There are dangers in CCS being an attractive measure for governments; it is a technological fix without immediate pain to them or to the populace of their countries. They will not be in power when it fails.  As Clive Hamilton has pointed out “which world leader wouldn’t seize on a promise to tackle global warming and save the coal industry at the same time?” Furthermore a technological fix cannot be allowed to circumvent a re-education of  those living western lifestyles

Unfortunately coal remains the cheapest form of energy with which renewable energy must compete. The cost of developing CCS paid by the coal industry would increase the price of coal. Governments will pay for the research not the industry. In the US, industry has put only 3.5 billion over several years into research compared to annual profits of 57 billion. In Australia industry will be responsible for only a small fraction of the costs. This suggests that either industry has no faith that the technology can be developed or simply the exercise of political power.

This power has been exerted by intense lobbying in the US and Australia and the Guardian newspaper reported on Feb 26 that in the US industry spent $38m last year buying TV, newspaper and magazine space to persuade Americans that coal can be clean and carbon-free.

The impact is shown by President Obama’s energy secretary Steven Chu who when appointed referred to coal as “my worst nightmare” but subsequently adopted the party line on the myth of clean coal.

The Economist writes CCS is not just a potential waste of money. It might also create a false sense of security about climate change, while depriving potentially cheaper methods of cutting emissions of cash and attention — all for the sake of placating the coal lobby
It is difficult to find any independent assessment which differs from this view

In Australia research into CCS should be paid for by industry and ‘encouraged’ by effective CPRS. It is not realistic to demand closure of coal mines but taking into account all the points raised above and the other health aspects of coal pollution, it is important to avoid the development of new mines. There should be a strategic plan to ensure this outcome. The future needs for energy must be encompassed by development of renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable growth.

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