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Capturing Carbon During the Long Fall of Fossil Fuels

Adam Hise's picture

I'm passionate about leveraging technological advances to address environmental challenges. My graduate research and consulting work has utilized systems analytics and market evaluation...

  • Member since 2018
  • 2 items added with 1,487 views
  • Jul 11, 2016

The detrimental impacts of fossil fuel combustion have historically been tangible.  We felt the burning in our lungs when our cities were enshrouded in smog; we observed our natural landscapes altered, our mountains severed and once great plains peppered with drilling operations whose flares blotted out the night sky; we experienced the silence along once teeming rivers and streams, as our most sensitive ecosystems were hijacked by mining runoff and spilt crude.

Reducing these highly visible effects on human and environmental health has long been reason enough to push for alternative energy sources.  However, the surging investment in and development of clean energy sources in the last decade has been primarily driven by the need to address the heretofore invisible, increasingly manifest atmospheric warming impacts of carbon dioxide released from fossil fuel combustion.

Decades of technological and financial innovation have made cost-competitive wind and solar power a reality in markets around the world.  This development encourages the belief that we have reached a “tipping point” towards achieving a society powered predominately by clean, renewable energy.  Make no mistake, significant technical hurdles must be overcome to achieve this sought-after future energy system.   Technological optimism, or the belief that the applied collective ingenuity of mankind (arguably our greatest renewable resource) will prove these challenges surmountable, is perhaps more justified today than in any previous era.

The appropriate concern therefore might not be if this future is achievable but when, with increasing evidence that the current pace of carbon reduction will be insufficient to avoid catastrophic, potentially irreversible levels of atmospheric warming.  Rapid reductions in global carbon emissions will require addressing the massive corps of incumbent emitting infrastructure while zero-carbon technologies are developed and adopted.  We will continue to rely on fossil energy during the transition to a renewable-powered economy, and must capture the carbon emitted along the way to avoid breaching warming thresholds.

Can existing technology allow us to meet warming goals?

A confluence of trends underway in the United States’ power sector led to 2015 being a milestone year.  As renewables (for all intents and purposes, wind and solar) dominated additions to electricity generating capacity and record breaking natural gas growth replaced retiring coal plants, the electricity sector reached its lowest level of CO2 emissions since 1995.  Together, regulatory support for and the improving economics of the wind, solar, and gas industries have driven these and similar trends in developed countries around the world.  (It should be noted that previous estimates of emissions reductions from coal-to-gas switching are now thought to have been “substantially underestimated.”)
However, global trends show that declining coal use in OECD nations has been, and is highly likely to continue to be, more than offset by increasing use in developing countries (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Global Coal Consumption (thousand metric tons of oil equivalent) and CO2 Emissions

Figure 1.  Global Coal Consumption (thousand metric tons of oil equivalent) and CO2 Emissions


OECD countries consumed 115 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) less coal in 2013 than in 1990, coinciding with an increase of 420 Mtoe in non-OECD nations.  Globally, these shifts resulted in a 40% net increase in global coal consumption, helping drive a 56% increase in global fuel combustion CO2 emissions.  Addressing energy poverty in rapidly growing, and electrifying, developing nations is expected to continue increasing the global demand for coal.  The EIA projects a sustained 0.6% annual growth rate in global coal consumption between 2012 and 2040, resulting in a 17% increase over this period (Figure 2).

fig 2

Figure 2.  Projected Global Coal Use 2010 – 2040 (EIA, 2016)


These trends demand a reconsideration of priorities.  An increase in global average temperatures of two degrees Celsius is globally recognized as likely to result in irreversible changes to the Earth’s atmosphere and natural cycles.  Despite widespread awareness of this threat, a continuation of current emissions rate trends will bring us to this threshold by 2030.  Disparities between the priorities of the developed and developing “worlds” has justified this bisection of nations around the globe.  We in developed nations hope that developing ones will learn from our mistakes, leapfrogging the fossil energy which has propelled our own development in favor of clean energy, which is as yet unable to compete in terms of cost and reliability.  This has proven a tough ask, and rightly so.

Taken individually, addressing basic energy needs in a developing nation supersedes the concern of limiting contributions to global CO2 emissions.  However, this is not a threat that can be tackled individually.  The “global” part of the global warming threat demands that actions be coordinated, with nations capable of more contributing more (e.g. emissions reductions, capital, knowledge) on behalf of the world that we all share.  With that in mind, it’s worth considering the impact of actions taken thus far.

What has been done? What is needed?

First, we must recognize that market failures, left unaddressed, will continue to keep market forces alone from reducing global dependence on fossil fuels (see the excellent examination of such factors by University of Chicago and MIT economists here).  As a means of influencing markets towards less polluting fuels, regulations of various forms have found mild success.  The efficacy of the various policies prescriptions (e.g. carbon tax, cap and trade, mandating levels of specific energy sources, etc.) for reducing emissions is a topic worthy of a dedicated post (stay tuned).

In the US, while these policies have shifted energy portfolios to favor cleaner energy and some have even generated revenues to fund clean energy development, they have failed to spurn the significant, rapid emissions reductions required.  Cities, states, nations and intergovernmental organizations must continue to serve as laboratories for climate policy.  Policymakers need to better understand the benefits, and costs, associated with alternative courses of action in order to efficiently reduce fossil fuel dependence within their respective borders and, ultimately, globally.

The dramatic growth of renewable energy generation in the last decade, propelled by technical advances, regulatory backing, and innovative financing, has had little impact on the portion of global energy supplied from fossil fuels.  For renewables to reduce the actual global consumption of fossil energy (and the resulting emissions) would require a sustained exponential growth rate that defies historical technology diffusion curves (i.e. traditional “S-curve” adoption rates).

Hopefully the futurists are right, and solar energy will continue improving and deploying at such a rate that the growing energy demands of developing nations can be met without coal.  Even so, the IEA projects that emissions from existing infrastructure constitute 80% of emissions allowable if we are to stay under 2°C, necessitating that either almost all future development be zero-carbon or steps be taken to reduce emissions from current and future infrastructure.

Avoiding locking ourselves into breaching this warming threshold demands immediate, substantial mitigation.  Renewable energy sources may indeed have pushed fossil fuels to a precipice, but the fall will be a long one, longer than we can afford.  Emissions from the fossil energy relied upon during this transition must be captured if we hope to allow this evolution to run its course without first triggering irreversible climate changes.

Carbon Capture Today: Barriers and Outlook

The International Energy Agency projects carbon capture and storage (CCS) to contribute 14% of the emissions reductions needed by 2050 to maintain a stable climate, with wide deployment in industry and electricity generation.  However, there currently exist no sufficient economic incentives or disincentives to capture and store CO2 emissions.  Mandate-driven, and taxpayer funded, first-of-a-kind CCS projects have been over-budget and underperforming.   Such a history, though common in the development of innovative technologies, has divided the opinion of environmentalists, with carbon capture viewed by some as a false solution promoted by self-interested, heavily fossil fuel-invested energy companies.

This perspective is representative of the broader, emotionally charged state of climate change discourse.  Efficacy of a solution has become less important than who promoted it, resulting in a myopic “us versus them” mentality which tends to benefit only the status quo (which, you’ll recall, likely triggers irreversible climate change in a mere 14 years).  Maintaining a stable climate necessitates that emissions from existing infrastructure and new fossil generators in emerging economies be captured while the transition to a renewable-powered society transpires.  The United States has a rich history of exporting innovation; federal support for carbon capture, mitigating the risks involved in the early stages of technology scale-up, has the potential to accelerate the global deployment of cost-effective solutions.

In a follow-up post, I’ll highlight the potential for the utilization of captured carbon to accelerate the deployment of carbon capture projects, providing near-term emissions reductions as fossil energy is displaced by increasingly cost-competitive renewables.  Further, the potential for algae to both capture emissions from electricity generators and displace petroleum will be examined.

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