Climate-Control Policies Cannot Rely on Carbon Capture and Storage: That’s My Side of The Economist Debates

For the second time, I’m participating in an online debate sponsored by The Economist.

The proposition is awkwardly worded, as always, “This house believes that climate-control policies cannot rely on carbon capture and storage.”

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The debate will be “decided” by online voting, so do go and vote. And, no, I haven’t changed my view of online voting, but I don’t make the rules. Yes, it is sponsored by Statoil. ‘nuff said.

Here is my opening statement as the “proposer”:

Any debate over climate policies must begin with the scope of the problem and solution.

A good place to start is with the recent International Energy Agency (IEA) “World Energy Outlook” release. The traditionally staid and conservative IEA warns:

“On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change … we are on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C [11°F] … Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

Needless to say, anything close to 6°C warming this century would probably mean suffering beyond imagination for billions:

  • devastating heat waves, floods and other extreme events;
  • myriad direct health impacts;
  • dust-bowl conditions over much of the arable and heavily populated regions around the globe;
  • sea-level rise of around 1 foot by 2050, then 4–6 feet (or more) by 2100, rising some 6–12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter;
  • massive species loss on land and sea — perhaps 50% or more of all biodiversity;
  • food insecurity — the increasingly difficulty task of feeding 7 billion, then 8 billion, then 9 billion people in a world with an ever-worsening climate.

Most of these will be happening simultaneously and getting worse decade after decade. Equally tragic, a 2009 study found that the worst impacts would be “largely irreversible for 1,000 years.”

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So job number one for the planet is to start deploying pretty much every commercialised low-carbon and no-carbon technology we have now, starting with the most cost-effective ones. Since carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not even close to commercial, it should certainly be the focus of an aggressive R&D and demonstration programme, but it will play very little role by 2020. Without vast investment, a high carbon price and some sort of broad international agreement on CCS, it will play little role by 2030. And under even the most optimistic assumptions, it would be exceedingly unlikely to be significantly more than 10% of the entire solution by mid-century.

In short, we need to start the low-carbon deployment machine without it and hope it catches up really soon.

In any debate, you need to define your terms. The key word in the motion — “This house believes that climate control policies cannot rely on carbon capture and storage” — is “rely”. If you Google it this is what pops up:

  1. Depend on with full trust or confidence.
  2. Be dependent on.

When the fate of billions of people is at stake, it is hard to depend on with full trust or confidence a technology that is currently not commercial — especially one with so many unanswered questions.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is cost. Obviously no one can know the ultimate cost of mass production of any currently non-commercial technology. Unfortunately, until we have a great many large-scale demonstration plants running for an extended period of time, any statements of ultimate cost are, well, nothing you could have trust or confidence in.

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Two years ago, Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs published a major study, “Realistic Costs of Carbon Capture”. The paper concludes that first-of-a-kind (FOAK) carbon capture and storage plants are going to be much more expensive than most people realise:

“The costs of carbon abatement on a 2008 basis for FOAK IGCC plants are expected to be approximately $150/tCO2 avoided (with a range $120–180/tCO2 avoided), excluding transport and storage costs.”

This yields a “levelised cost of electricity on a 2008 basis [that] is approximately 10 cents/kWh higher with capture than for conventional plants”. So pick your favourite price for new coal plants — Moody’s had a 2008 price of about 11 cents/kWh — and add 10 cents and you get over 20 cents/kWh.

Obviously there are a great many carbon-free power sources today that are already far cheaper and most are coming down in cost as their deployment grows.

Yes, the possibility exists for CCS at existing coal plants — extracted from the flue gas post-combustion — but that technology is even further from commercialisation at scale and necessarily involves capturing CO2 that is far more dilute. As the US Department of Energy reports:

“Existing CO2 capture technologies are not cost-effective when considered in the context of large power plants. Economic studies indicate that carbon capture will add over 30% to the cost of electricity for new integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) units and over 80% to the cost of electricity if retrofitted to existing pulverised coal (PC) units. In addition, the net electricity produced from existing plants would be significantly reduced — often referred to as parasitic loss — since 20–30% of the power generated by the plant would have to be used to capture and compress the CO2.”

The other issue is whether we can “be dependent on” CCS. I will address this in the next post.