Forty years ago, oil, gas and coal supplied 80 per cent of the world’s energy.
Forty years later, hydrocarbons still supply 80 per cent of the world’s energy.
Despite wishful thinking by some, the global energy mix is unlikely to shift easily or quickly from the hydrocarbon energy sources that dominate, given their huge scale, performance and cost advantages.
But there is a path forward to meeting global climate goals while playing to our national economic strengths. While few Australians would nominate carbon capture and storage as a crucial part of shaping our future, it’s time we woke up to the strengths of this proven and reliable technology.
CCS prevents carbon dioxide from use of hydrocarbons being released into the atmosphere. CO2 produced by large industrial plants is captured, compressed for transport and then injected deep into a rock formation at a carefully selected site, where it is permanently stored.
No one provides a stronger case for CCS than the International Energy Agency, the premier advisory body for governments of developed countries.
IEA executive director Fatih Birol puts it succinctly: “Without CCS as part of the solution, meeting global climate goals will be practically impossible.”
He also points out that the amount of government financial support for the technology around the world during the past 10 years has been less than three percent of the subsidies provided to renewable energy.
The size of the challenge is large indeed. There are 23 large-scale CCS facilities in operation or under construction globally. They can remove 37 million tonnes a year of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But what is needed is more than 100 times this level of activity, and all by 2040.
Despite the technology’s achievements to date, CCS has yet to surmount two major challenges: perceptions of high cost despite the latest innovations offering major cost reductions, and the strident opposition of environmental activists dedicated to killing off fossil fuels to “save the planet”.
It is clear that public awareness and understanding of CCS is low, at a time when there is a strong community acceptance of wind power, solar power and battery storage as a quick fix for what increasingly is being characterised by some as a climate emergency.
This is based in part on oversimplification of the climate and energy policy debate, including the proffering of a single solution: rapid deployment of 100 percent renewables (largely wind and solar), with the goal of eliminating fossil fuels completey within a decade or two.
There is plenty of evidence that intermittent renewables cannot do the whole job. The full cost of renewables is understated by orders of magnitude, while forcing a rising proportion of intermittent renewables into the power grid can actually destabilise systems. Yet the 100 per cent renewables advocates continue to hold sway with the public and so-called ethical investor arena.
The truth is that the 100 per cent renewables fixation and climate emergency panic are narrowing the technology options the world is willing to consider.
Every other energy technology option is dismissed in the rush to the inevitable “transition” to the 100 per cent renewables solution.
Even industry bodies in the traditional energy sectors fall victim to the seductive notion that the greatest contribution that gas and low-emissions coal can make is to painlessly aid this transition.
The core of the argument for CCS is that, in the drive to meet the Paris Agreement terms and ultimately go beyond them, there is no silver bullet.
Australian and global policymakers need to respond to the challenge in a thoughtful way rather than fail by going with the flow of populist fashion. This means an effort to fully develop CCS equal to that today supporting renewables.
A starting point in Australia can be a genuine understanding that carbon management is not about renewables power generation, shifting our motoring fleet to electric vehicles and becoming a nation of vegans.
It is in tackling the hard challenge represented by low-emissions power generation and transport but also industries such as steel, fertilisers and cement along with our wealth-generating coal and gas export sectors where the true work lies.
And it is here that CCS can play a substantial role in reducing emissions across all these major industry sectors.
Recognising this and accepting that CCS can be a vital player on a technology-neutral playing field is now an urgent task for the re-elected federal government.