CCS has been hobbled by the economic crisis, and Europe is far behind the US – but a new Norwegian plant provides hope
In the cool, salty air of the Norwegian coast, a revolution in reverse is being attempted. Here, amid a mare’s nest of gleaming steel pipes and flaming yellow gas flares, engineers are aiming to put back under the ground what many nations have exerted all their might for the last century to get out: carbon.
If all goes to plan, the oil refinery and gas power plant at Mongstad will have millions of tonnes of its climate-warming carbon dioxide funnelled back under the North Sea. And there are plans aplenty around the world for carbon capture and storage (CCS). They carry racy names such as Goldeneye and Gorgon, promise to even suck greenhouse gases out of the air one day, and are laced with the delicious irony of having been kickstarted by climate sceptic US president George W Bush, who wanted to “do something for coal”.
But the optimism that fuelled hopes of CCS driving deep carbon cuts has stalled. The infant industry was knocked off course by the world economic crisis that dragged urgency about global warming down with it, and made money hard to come by. This matters, says the International Energy Agency, which thinks 20% of all the carbon cuts needed to tackle global warming could come from trapping the exhausts of power stations and putting them out of harm’s way.
“If CCS is out, we need to find other ways to get those carbon cuts and that will be very, very difficult: we have to do it,” said Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA executive director, adding that almost three-quarters of all energy between now and 2050 will come from burning fossil fuels. The IEA, which recently warned current trends would lead to a catastrophic 6C of warming, says 3,000 large CCS plants will be needed by 2050, with three dozen within a decade. There are currently none on power stations.
Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, who opened the Mongstad plant, told the Guardian: “With nine billion people expected on the planet in 2050, there is no way we can choose between increased energy production and reduced CO2 – we have to achieve both. Without CCS, we cannot do it.”