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A Reality Check On Coal: The Extra Cost Of CCS Must Be Taken Seriously

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We all agree that decarbonizing our global economy as quickly as possible is non-negotiable if we are to stand a chance of combatting climate change and keeping the global temperature below 1.5 degrees. The way we currently produce and use power is responsible for such a large amount of these emissions, accounting for about 25% of the total, that decarbonizing our power sector must be prioritized.

Credible sources suggest that we have just five years left of current CO2 emissions in the carbon budget to stand a good chance of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5C. We must be pragmatic now, when it really counts, before it’s too late.

The solution is well known; firstly we must go as far as we can with energy efficiency measures, as the cleanest power is of course the power you do not use. Then we must use as much non-CO2 emitting sources as possible, such as nuclear and renewables. All of this must happen in a timescale that would guarantee we are not exceeding the carbon budget we know we still have left.

Following a recent trip to Asia I was struck by the number of power projects that are still being planned and launched using coal and gas as fuel. We still see it as a strong part of the energy mix in China, India and South East Asia (not to mention Europe and the US). As of July 2016, China alone had 205GW of coal-fired generating capacity under construction, more than the entire coal-fired capacity of Europe (162GW). Coal is still being used because of its apparent low cost and high security of supply, and of course because of the economical and political interests behind it.

Despite welcome recent reports that China halted construction to 30 large coal fired power plants, there are still over 1000 planned or under construction in just China and India alone. A recent report stated that coal will still play a major role in global energy in 2040 without immediate radical change. So coal will be around for some time to come. With this in mind, we need to stop being hypocritical and face some real facts. If we, in the developed world are still addicted to fossil, how can we expect the use of fossil to decrease quickly in developing nations where 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity and 2.1 billion people live on less than US $3.10 a day?

We need to be realistic and not fight the wrong enemy; use of fossil is not the first immediate problem, CO2 and other GHG going in the atmosphere are the problem. For this we have an answer with carbon capture and storage (CCS). It is an unpopular but practical, partial and real solution that can be used during an interim period until a critical mass of sustainable energy through renewables and non-CO2 emitting fuel is reached. Its use should not stop progress in other areas of sustainable development, however it should form a real part of the energy dialogue right now as some observers are claiming and be an essential part of the energy mix according to IEA and IPCC.

All technologies within the CCS supply chain are known and have been used for decades at a smaller scale. The only real remaining issues are the identification and certification of enough safe storage capacity, funding and public acceptance. We already have identified some accepted storage, so why don’t we start now? The fact that we are still in a near incantatory mode of discussing dogmatic positions is unbelievable given the urgency of the climate change issue.

Every time I speak with leading power executives in these regions they say more or less the same thing. Firstly, instead of blaming us for using coal, why don’t you stop relying on it yourself? Secondly, why can’t funds from the agreement in Paris be allocated to help us to compensate for the cost of using more expensive technologies and solutions than the ones you have used to develop your economies?

This raises a question of how serious we are on the existence and use of climate finance flows. We agreed in Paris that our goal is to raise at least $100 billion a year of aid to poorer nations for climate-related projects, so why not allocate a reasonable percentage of this to developing and rolling out CCS at a much larger scale? We should compensate the developing nations for the extra cost CCS represents. They need CCS to turn the coal they will continue to use anyway into a clean solution. We must invest in this solution immediately to assist in reducing pollution in these regions, and stand a chance of keeping the global temperature at a viable level.

In business, the first thing you learn is to prioritize your line of action and stick to it. We are running out of time, and if we keep striving for perfection we may well miss the opportunity to save incalculable amounts of carbon, that will make the difference between a temperature we can live with, and one we simply can’t exist in.

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