Why the World needs Carbon Capture and Storage

Over the last Christmas break I had several interesting conversations with people who wanted to know what kind of research I am doing and why it might be important to them. So I thought why not write something about it! I am happy to answer any question about Carbon Capture and Storage you might have, however if you do not believe in climate change don’t bother…

The latest reports on climate change and global warming showed once again that a crucial time lies ahead of us. The National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee (U.S.) shows in its latest report that without measures to drastically reduce the CO2 emissions the global temperatures will rise by 2.5 to 5.5 °C. This makes the goal of limiting the temperature increase to 2 °C by the end of the century very challenging. And to make it sound even better: A 2 °C increase in global temperature would already severely influence our lifestyles.

That there is a direct link between global temperature rise and the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is nowadays (nearly) undisputed:

Global Temperatures and CO2 Concentrations in the atmosphere. From the NACDAC report.

Global annual temperatures (red: above long term average, blue: below long term average) and  CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (from the NCADAC report). The fact that each following year is not always warmer than the year before is related to El Nino and El Nina effects as well as volcanic eruptions.

The rise in the CO2 concentration is mainly related to the burning of fossil fuels as illustrated in the following graph:


Data from Boden et al., 2010.

Fossil fuels make up the major part of the world energy consumption (see graph of BP below). Despite the raise of renewables, coal consumption has seen the biggest growth in the last few years.

World consumption

The world consumption in the future will not change as much as some people might think. Especially in countries with the biggest CO2 emissions (China, US, India), fossil fuels will still make up more than half (up to 3/4) of the electricity sources in 2035 (from Scott et al., 2012):

Scott et al

Based on these facts we have to solve the following problem: How do we reduce the global CO2 emissions while still using fossil fuels as major energy source? The answer to that is, as you will probably already have guessed, the technology package called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The idea behind CCS is to capture CO2 where it is produced (power plants) before it is released into the atmosphere. The captured CO2 will then be transported to storage sites where it will be safely stored in the subsurface.

The good thing about CCS is that it is (nearly) deployable on large industrial scale. The downside is that it is expensive, needs quite a lot of space next to power plants and that it takes several (2-4) years to either build new power plants with capture technology or to retrofit old power plants with capture units. However, compared to the amount of money climate change costs the world already (1.2 trillion $/year) and to the costs that lay ahead of us, costs for CCS seem rather small. In addition the same report indicates that up to 100 million people could die by 2050 as a result of climate change.

Now you may wonder (as I do), why on earth haven’t we started building power plants with CCS already? I think the main points are:

  • For the big energy producers the costs for CCS plants is just to high as they do not produce the same revenue as normal power plants. How do you explain to your shareholders that you rather spent more money on a thing called CCS then making more (short-term!) profit? A better carbon pricing policy might help here, as well as endorsement for the first projects.
  • The public acceptance for CCS is rather low. Take Germany for example. Every German loves green energy. And hates nuclear power. But doesn’t want to have a wind turbine in his/her backyard. And NO CO2 stored below their feet! I think that a better communication between science, industry and public would help a lot to improve the public opinion on CCS. Then even politicians could support CCS and could still get reelected.

While I personally can’t do much about the first point, I’ll write in the next posts how CCS actually works and if and how much we have to worry about exploding water coming out of our taps or earthquakes destroying our houses! Stay tuned 🙂


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