False Solutions, part 2: Carbon Capture and Storage

By Isabella Nilsen, Politics student

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not a real solution for tackling climate change. It is expensive and comes with several risks, and might lead us to believe that we can continue using fossil fuels to the same extent as today, instead of investing into renewables and other ‘real solutions’. Furthermore, with forests providing a sustainable form of ‘carbon capture and storage’, we must also stop deforestation.

CCS

CCS plant in Canada [C] SaskPowerCCS

Limits

CCS is often presented as something that can be constructed on a large scale to capture emitted CO2 particles. However, it is a very expensive technique, and also needs a lot of energy to function. Therefore, there is a limit to how far it could be extended.  When the International Energy Agency (2012) presented different possible scenarios for remaining under a 2°C threshold by 2050, they estimated that  CCS would be representing a capture of 123 GtCO2 between 2015 and 2050[1],  taking into account that CCS is only economically feasible on very large emitters (large-scale plants), which emit CO2 in a very high concentration.[2]

However, as noted by Carbon Tracker, 123 GtCO2 represents only an extension by 12-14 percent of the carbon budget(i.e. the amount of carbon dioxide which can be emitted in order to not exceed a 2°C target)[3]. Therefore, there is a limit to the extent that CCS can be applied.  Furthermore, extra energy is needed to run a plant with CCS, creating an ‘energy penalty’ of an estimated 40 per cent if a plant is to deliver the same output as without CCS[4] – which results in a proportional increase in emissions in the other stages of combustion and transporting the fuel.

Risks

There are still only 15 large-scale CCS plants in the world[5], and there has luckily not yet been a large leak. However, evidence suggests that it is a risky technique. Firstly, according to Zoback and Gorelick (2012) CCS can lead to earthquakes, since it involves the process of injecting large amounts of liquefied CO2 into often brittle rocks. Furthermore, if an earthquake is triggered, it might lead to breaking the seal of the repository, thus leading to CO2 leaking out and making the process counter-productive[6]. In fact, it has been suggested that leakages greater than a mere one percent would contribute to climate change, as  the amount of CO2 leaked would still be considerable (albeit at a slower rate than continuing to burn fossil fuels without CCS).[7]

CO2 can also leak during other steps of the process. If large amounts of CO2 are leaked into the air, it can have disastrous effects for human beings, animals and the environment.  This was exemplified in the Lake Nyos disaster in 1986, where large amounts of CO2 was released from gaseous springs running from a nearby (extinct) volcano, killing over 1700 people through asphyxiation[8].

Furthermore, if CO2 is leaked into the water, it can also have disastrous effects for wildlife. CO2 dissolved into water is known to lower the pH-level of waters, leading to chloral bleaching and shell dissolution, and can also affect the reproduction of animals living in water.[9]

work_impact_environmental_ecosystems.jpg

Rain forest, unidentified country [c] Rainforest Alliance

Alternatives

When taking into account the capture, the transport and the storage, CCS techniques lead to higher emissions than renewable energy[10], and is also more expensive in the long-term[11]. Therefore, CCS is a false solution which makes us believe that we can continue using fossil fuels to the same extent as today, instead of investing into renewables which are both cheaper and less risky. On the other hand, forests are a natural form of ‘carbon capture and storage’, and store an estimated 300 billion tonnes of CO2 (around 40 times more than the annual emissions of CO2 by human activity)[12]. Yet every minute the size of 35 American football pitches of forest is cut down[13]. There is therefore no need for CCS and the risks that it involves, when better solutions such as stopping deforestation and investing into renewable energy are already at our disposal.

 

[1]International Energy Agency, (2012),  ‘Energy Technology Perspectives 2012’, available at https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/ETP2012_free.pdf, accessed 23 May 2016, p.340

[2]International Energy Agency, (2012), ‘Energy Technology Perspectives 2012’, available at https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/ETP2012_free.pdf , p. 339

[3] Carbon Tracker, (2013), ‘Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets’, available at http://www.carbontracker.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Unburnable-Carbon-2-Web-Version.pdf, accessed 22 May 2016, p. 13

[4]NOAH, Friends of the Earth Denmark, (?), ‘Additional Use of Energy in the CCS Process’, available at http://ccs-info.org/onewebmedia/Energy_penalty_CCS_capture_process.pdf  accessed 21 May 2016

[5]Global CCS Institute, (2015), ‘Large Scale CCS Projects’, available at  http://www.globalccsinstitute.com/projects/large-scale-ccs-projects  accessed 23 May 2016

[6] Zoback, M.D. and Gorelick, S.M, (2012) ‘Earthquake triggering and large-scale geologic storage of carbon dioxide’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 109, No. 26, pp. 10164–10168

[7]Marshall, C. (2010) ‘Can Stored Carbon Dioxide Leak?’, Scientific American, available at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-stored-carbon-dioxide-leak/ , accessed 23 May 2016

[8] BBC News, (2016), ‘On This Day – 1986: Hundreds Gassed in Cameroon Lake Disaster’, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/21/newsid_3380000/3380803.stm , accessed 23 May 2016

[9]Carruthers, K. (2014) ‘Environmental Impacts of CO2-EOR’, Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage, available at  http://www.sccs.org.uk/images/expertise/reports/co2-eor-jip/SCCS-CO2-EOR-JIP-WP4-Environmental-Impacts.pdf accessed 23 May 2016, p. 14-16

[10] Viebahn, P., Nitch, J, Fischedick, M., Esken, A., Schüwer, D., Supersberger, N., Zuberbühler, U. and Edenhofer, O. (2007), ‘Comparison of Carbon Capture and Storage with Renewable Energy Technologies Regarding Structural, Economic and Ecological Aspects in Germany’, International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp.  121-133, p.125

[11] Viebahn, P., Nitch, J, Fischedick, M., Esken, A., Schüwer, D., Supersberger, N., Zuberbühler, U. and Edenhofer, O. (2007), ‘Comparison of Carbon Capture and Storage with Renewable Energy Technologies Regarding Structural, Economic and Ecological Aspects in Germany’, International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp.  121-133, p.121

[12] Greenpeace, (2016), ‘Protecting Forests’, available at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/forests/ , accessed 23 May 2016

[13]Greenpeace, (2016), ‘Protecting Forests’, available at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/forests/ , accessed 23 May 2016

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