CCS: Savior or devil?

At a recent conference in Berlin, many people spoke in support of a controversial technology: Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS).  Did we lose all those CCS supporters to the coal industry, or could there be good reason for their support of CCS?

Let me start with a disclosure: I have been trained by former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore to give presentations on climate change as part of The Climate Project, and am a passionate supporter of 350. Consequently, I strongly believe that one of the most important actions that the world needs to take is to stop the burning of coal in power plants that are not equipped with CCS. And because CCS technology is a far way from being economically viable, I viewed CCS as just an excuse to keep building new coal-fired power plants – with the empty promise that at some later point in time those plants will be equipped with CCS.

For those who are new to the term CCS: it is a method that captures CO2 before, during, or after the burning of organic material. After capture, the CO2 is sequesterd and stored underground. The captured CO2 can stem from gas such as in the gas fields off the coast of Norway; or it can stem from coal. So far, there is only one coal-fired power plant that tests this method, built by Vattenfall in eastern Germany.  At the recent Energy Forum II at the TU Berlin, a speaker from Vattenfall mentioned that their first large-scale coal-fired power plant with CCS will not be operational until 2020. Considering that CO2 emissions have to peak by 2015 (IPCC 2007) to avoid potential runaway global warming, such a late date for the first large scale coal-fired power plant seems somewhat late, to put it mildly.

With so few test plants running, and such a large number of coal-fired power plants being planned and built, isn’t CCS just a hoax? Aren’t investments in this technology a waste of money and of precious time that we should rather invest in renewable energies? Will its development not be too late to make a difference?

No. Because of the simple fact that CCS can be used not just to capture CO2 from fossil fuels. But CCS can also be used to capture CO2 when biomass is burned to generate heat or electricity. If used in such a setting, then we could actually produce not just carbon neutral, but actually carbon-negative emissions.

To be able to reach a CO2 concentration that is lower than 350 ppm – which is needed to avoid a global warming of more than 2 degree Celsius –  we urgently need to apply technologies and methods that not only reduce our emissions (such as renewable energies), but that also take carbon out of the air. CCS can fulfill a part of that need.

Still, CCS bears the danger that fossil fuel companies use the prospect of CCS as an excuse to build power plants today even though CCS can only be added in many years to come. We cannot afford such excuses. But we do need CCS to help us draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Therefore, it will be important to support this technology while being aware of the dangers it might hold (especially in the area of carbon storage). But rejecting this technology might preclude an important mechanism to help us reach a level of CO2 that will ensure a safe future.


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