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Future Tech
A Great Green Hope Stalls

One of the most promising eco-friendly technologies at hand is having a bear of a time getting off the ground. As the FT reports, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are struggling to prove their worth as a cheap way to help heavy emitters go green:

While there are 22 projects operating or under construction worldwide, capacity is tiny compared with what is needed to meet a target of curbing global warming levels to a 2 degree centigrade target, let alone the 1.5 degree aspiration agreed at Paris climate talks. […]

“Coal will play an important role in the world’s energy mix for years to come, so if we are going to meet our climate targets, CCS is essential,” [said World Coal Association head Benjamin Sporton].

Yet others argue that focusing on CCS for power generation is the wrong approach . . . CCS for large-scale power generation does not make sense, [says the Carbon Tracker Institute’s Anthony Hobley]. “There are multiple risks including competition from new technologies such as renewables and energy storage.”

One of the attractive benefits of carbon capture systems is their ability to mitigate emissions from power production and industrial activities that don’t have cheap alternatives. If CCS can be commercially scaled in a cost-effective manner, developing countries interested in cheaply providing power to their citizens wouldn’t have to ditch coal-fired plants in favor of more expensive renewable options. They could instead install CCS systems and continue to burn the cheap, sooty energy source. Then too there’s the issue of emissions from heavy industry, a problem that despite green wishes can’t be solved with lavish subsidies for less efficient, eco-friendly alternatives—for the simple reason that such alternatives don’t exist. To cut that category of emissions, you either have to stop production (not a realistic option, unless we’re willing to stop using raw materials like steel), or use carbon capture systems.

But the technology isn’t there yet, and the CCS industry finds itself struggling to prove itself a viable option. There would be smoother sailing if there was a robust market for the carbon being captured, but that isn’t the case. Environmentalists likely won’t want to hear it, but one of the few parties interested in captured carbon market is the oil industry, which has been using CO2 to boost drilling output, one of the many innovative techniques producers have employed to stay profitable in today’s bear market.

Basing predictions about the future on the technologies available at present day is a sure way to get those prognostications wrong, and just because CCS isn’t thriving now doesn’t mean it won’t find a path to success on the back of a research breakthrough. Policymakers keen on greening the global economy would be much better served diverting money away from the subsidization of inefficient current-gen eco-friendly solutions, and instead spending that cash and political capital on the development of something that could actually work. Carbon capture may not be there yet, but that doesn’t mean it should be written off, either.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Nature has provided us with a remarkably effective CCS mechanism. It’s called photosynthesis, and is the reason that atmospheric CO2 levels are lower on the east coast of the USA than on the west (http://www.forbes.com/global/1999/0405/0207087a.html). While waiting for a CCS technology alternative, why aren’t developing nations planting trees? Ironically, one of the benefits of increased atmospheric CO2 is that it accelerates plant-based CCS.

    • rheddles

      Developed nations aren’t planting trees because the trees have commercial value today and the land can be used for agriculture. But in the US:

      After two centuries of decline, the area of US forestland stabilized in about 1920 and
      has since increased slightly. The forest area of the US is about two-thirds what it was in
      1600.

      The area consumed by wildfire each year has fallen 90 percent; it was between eight and
      twenty million hectares (20-50 million acres) in the early 1900s and is between one and
      two million hectares (2-5 million acres) today.

      Forest growth nationally has exceeded harvest since the 1940s. By 1997 forest growth
      exceeded harvest by 42 percent and the volume of forest growth was 380 percent greater
      than it had been in 1920.

      Nationally, the average standing wood volume per acre in US forests is about one-third
      greater today than in 1952; in the East, average volume per acre has almost doubled. About
      three-quarters of the volume increase is in broad leaved or deciduous trees.

      When they get rich and their population levels off, the same thing will occur in today’s developing countries.

      • Andrew Allison

        Well yes, but my question was “. . . why aren’t developING nations planting trees. As the developed nations demonstrated, it’s a great way to store carbon. Lumber is also a valuable commodity. Seems like a no-brainer.

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