At COP23, Oxford Climate Society sat down with Brad Page, CEO of the Global CCS Institute. The Institute has the mission of accelerating the deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, which they see as central to efforts to limit the extent of climate change.
The need for CCS?
Advocates of CCS argue that most future emission scenarios compatible with limiting climate change to 2°C, let alone 1.5°C, require rapid and large-scale deployment of CCS infrastructure. Nonetheless, the technology remains controversial, particularly among environmental NGOs. Friends of the Earth Europe describe CCS as being ‘not a viable alternative … a 20th century concept … [which] increases reliance on fossil fuels’ and which simply aids the fossil fuel industry in retaining the ‘current energy model’.
Page rejects this ‘pretty monochrome view. I don’t think it’s accurate’, he argues, ‘it’s a terrible misunderstanding of the way business works and the way capital is allocated [which] understates and underestimates – or perhaps it’s just a denial – [the] huge amounts of money have already been spent by quite a number of the fossil fuel companies’.
In support of this, Page draws on the example of Shell, who he says has been ‘very clear in its call for a carbon price [and committed] its investments in the QUEST project in Canada and the Gorgon project in Australia’ as well as being ‘desperately keen to do a project in Scotland until the UK government backed out of it’.
Whilst acknowledging that ‘there have been in the past a number of entities and individuals that are connected with the fuels industry who very strongly and publicly bankrolled climate deniers’, which he described as ‘unhelpful’, Page also contends that ‘it’s equally unhelpful that we have green groups … saying what they do’ on CCS. However, he notes that environmental groups should not all be painted with a broad brush, and that a number of NGOs do publicly support CCS deployment, including the Oslo-based Bellona Foundation and the Natural Resources Defence Council.
In addition to the view of some NGOs that CCS merely offers a ‘fig leaf for [the fossil fuel industry] to continue business as usual’, Page says that the ‘only other argument I’ve heard from some on the green side is that they believe that, particularly in the industrial application side … technologies [will] come to market in sufficient time that you don’t need CCS. To be perfectly honest, I regard that as something just a fraction away from wishful thinking: time is short, innovation in chemicals, cement, plastics, fertilisers, is not that fast or that great and if we don’t do CCS on that 20-25% of global emissions, we’ve got no chance [of limiting climate change to 2°C], quite frankly. I can’t live very comfortably with that thought. Denying this technology … has the risk of actively working against us achieving 2, let alone 1.5[°C].’
Page also insists that CCS should not be banded together with other technologies, such as solar radiation management and branded as ‘geoengineering’, arguing that ‘CCS is not much more complicated than putting the carbon dioxide back where it came from when it was released from oil and gas … I don’t see that as geoengineering at all’.
For many of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels is vital, and yet research suggests that emissions from electricity generation infrastructure built by 2006, if used for its intended lifetime, would be enough to take warming beyond that level. All electricity generation assets built in the last decade must therefore become stranded, or be retrofitted with CCS, if we are to limit climate change to 1.5°C. Page stresses that regardless of which future emission scenario compatible with limiting climate change to 2°C one looks at, CCS deployment will need to be considerable. ‘If you went with the IEA’s numbers, just to get to 2 degrees, we need to scale up 100-fold on what we have in the pipeline today – and we need to scale it up by 2040 … time’s against us, these are big facilities [which] take time to go from project conception through to actually [being] constructed and operated.
‘If you look… at trying to get to 1.5, that’s already almost an impossible task. One of the things [that] the IEA finds … and they can’t model 1.5, the best they’ve been able to do is 1.75 … what you see [in] the difference between going to 2 degrees and going to 1.75 degrees is that CCS has to pick up 1/3 of that additional … task. So [CCS] goes from [picking up] 14% [of emission reductions] for 2 degrees, but it jumps up by another third just to go down another quarter of a degree’.
For ambitious mitigation of climate change, Page suggests that negative emissions technologies, such as Bio-energy with CCS (BECCS) will be required ‘in some sectors because there still is likely to be emissions from, for example, aviation’. Due to these ‘almost impossible to decarbonise sectors, in that time frame … CCS has to step up.’
Returning to his rebuttal of environmental campaigners’ criticism of CCS, Page states: ‘this is the sort of climate maths that I keep going back to … I respect that the green groups have their view, just as we have ours, and we’re going to disagree on it, but I think it’s not a very smart insurance approach to simply take technologies off the table, and for those green groups [which would] have no nuclear deployment … if you take nuclear and CCS off, we have zero chance [of limiting climate change to 1.5], it’s not going to happen.’
What needs to happen for large-scale deployment of CCS to happen?
If we are to make the transition to a low-emission world a reality, Page argues that facilitating the rapid introduction of CCS he advocates is predominantly an issue of economics. ‘[We] need to appreciate the basis on which business exists’, Page says, ‘we can see it in renewables: there’s been very clear, stable, predictable policies that enable renewables to be financed, so that’s all we have to do, they just need to be able to be financed, and they can be very successful.
‘CCS hasn’t enjoyed that same investability. I’m not going to say for a moment that CCS requires the same policies as renewables, but there [are] a lot of different instruments we can use, from emissions trading and regulation to tax credits, but at the end of the day, what [is needed must be] reliable, long term and therefore takes risk out of the equation. Beyond that, you probably don’t need to do a whole lot to actually get this acceleration occurring.’
Page identifies Canada as an example of providing the governance required to encourage large-scale investment in CCS. ‘Canada is now on a route for $50/Tonne minimum price for CO2 by 2022 [and at this price], there’s a whole stack of projects waiting there for that sort of investable signal.’ Using the example of Shell’s QUEST project, a Hydrogen production plant, Page says: ‘you take methane, you add steam, you get 2 products … Hydrogen [and] CO2. Just about every Hydrogen plant in the world just lets the CO2 go, at QUEST, they capture that and … pump it down a pipe [into a] subterranean formation that’s storing CO2. Alberta has a carbon price of $25 or $30 / Tonne, and what we heard yesterday from Shell is that covers the operating cost.
‘Hydrogen is going to be really important for a very long time, and probably increasingly important, and we already know that it’s going to take a long time for solar based water hydrolysis to produce hydrogen [and] get anywhere near the cost-effectiveness of either coal gasification or steam-methane reforming with CCS … it’s between 5 and 10 times more expensive today than those arrangements – we don’t have time to wait for that to come down’.
Page does still identify several market failures posing challenges to the introduction of CCS. ‘For some of the very difficult to decarbonise sectors, like cement for example, we still need a fair bit of technology development [to] more effectively capture the CO2 and bring that capture technology down the cost curve. We still are going to require common user infrastructure for transport and storage and there’s quite a good role for government, probably in a public-private partnership.’
This is particularly important for ‘companies running industrial emissions outside of the oil and gas industry’, who are ‘very comfortable with the chemical process for capture, but they have no idea about transportation and storage: it’s not their expertise and the scale at which that needs to happen is greater than any individual company – so you … need to find a way to build this infrastructure, and this is something governments are really good at. They build sewers, they build water systems, this is, if you think about it, another waste system that needs to be built and can be financed then by user charges over a longer period. I think [that] between getting the investability right and getting the infrastructure right, it’s entirely likely that we will see a lot of projects come up.’
Clean Coal - What does it mean and can it be done with CSS?
‘I’ve no idea what this term means’, replied Page. From the point of view of the Global CCS Institute, ‘it’s … quite simple: the only way … you can use the term clean coal is that when it’s combusted, all of its emissions … not just CO2, all of its damaging emissions, particulates, SOx, NOx, mercury, these have to be dealt with effectively. That means clean coal for us, in a power generation sense … has got to have CCS. You’ve got to be down around or less than 100kg of CO2 per MWh before this can be vaguely thought of as clean. Anything other than that is simply using latest state of the art combustion technology, which frankly ought to be the default, but still has you at somewhere around 750-800kg / MWh of emissions. Just to put that in context … a common view is that the best complement to renewables in the current power systems as we transition is gas because it’s cleaner than coal. The best gas technology is somewhere between 350 and 450 kg/MWh. It too is not clean, we’ve got to be down near that 100 kg / MWh, and still we have emissions that have to be dealt with.
Who is leading the world on CSS technology implementation?
For Page, a number of countries stand out. ‘Norway has been a leader in CCS for a long time and it’s largely on the back of the $50/Tonne CO2 price on oil and gas activities within Norway, [which has] led to the Snøhvit storage project: 20 years in operation, 20 million tonnes of CO2 stored. China has the second largest number of projects and facilities behind the United States, it’s doing it in a very considered way, it is bringing into effect [an] emissions trading scheme [which] will be broad-based and cover many industries and while its initial price will be modest it puts everyone on notice that they are going to be facing a carbon price [which] starts to increase investment’. The ‘mix of policies’ in China may be a successful strategy suggests Page, including ‘carbon pricing coming through from the emissions trading scheme, direct government involvement, sometimes in the form of regulation and direction, other times with some money involved, and thirdly, around understanding what their national obligation is for decarbonising oil.’
Page also singles out Canada, where the ‘carbon price is going to rise to $50 / tonne by 2022 [which he suggests] is going to be really significant for CCS.’ Finally, he also praises Japan, where ‘the ministry of the environment … has a very large integrated project that starts with all the legal and policy and regulatory frameworks … through common user transport and storage infrastructure … funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of Yen a year.’
Page concludes by emphasising the importance of these trailblazing countries, which ‘demonstrate to other countries who will have to ramp up their NDCs … that [decarbonisation with CCS] is entirely feasible, possible, sensible, and you can do it.’
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science, policy, perspectives and more from the OCS team.