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Climate pipe dreams

  • 31 March 2017


About 40km from Warrnambool in south-western Victoria is Australia's first demonstration site for storing carbon dioxide pollution deep underground. It doesn't look like much — a few water tanks, sheds and pipes in a paddock — yet plans to meet the internationally agreed climate change target are betting on the success of projects like this.

The company behind it, the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies (CO2CRC), calls it 'the world's largest carbon capture and storage demonstration project', a $100 million project of 'global significance'.

CO2CRC was established more than a decade ago with federal funds, and the current chairman is former federal Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson. It researches carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques to capture the pollution from power stations and sequester it deep beneath the earth so it won't overheat the planet.

For decades, environment groups maligned CCS as little more than an excuse for the fossil fuel industry to keep burning coal and gas. It was marketed as 'clean coal', but has never fulfilled its promise at commercial scale. Despite this, in recent years, CCS has become an unspoken assumption of the international agreement to limit warming to well below 2 degrees.

'Rather than requiring that nations reduce emissions in the short-to-medium term, the Paris agreement instead rests on the assumption that the world will successfully suck the carbon pollution it produces back from the atmosphere in the longer term,' climate scientist Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre in the UK, wrote in Nature soon after the 2015 Paris climate change conference. 'A few years ago, these exotic Dr Strangelove options were discussed only as last-ditch contingencies. Now they are Plan A.'

Specifically, much of the scenario modelling relies on something called bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS). It involves growing crops such as corn or switchgrass, which take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the natural process of photosynthesis. They would then be burned in power stations to generate electricity, with the resulting emissions captured and stored underground.

This isn't a fringe strategy anymore. As Anderson writes, it is now a big part of the mainstream, politically preferred approach to address global warming.

In an article for Nature Geoscience, he reviewed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) database of scenarios to meet the 2 degree target and concluded. 'In plain language, the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50 per cent or better chance of 2°C assume