Global collaboration on CCS technology is key to containing CO2
THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT has largely succeeded in vilifying coal usage in America’s power generation systems through their strategic and political alliances, legal challenges and media campaigns. They have a powerful voice and a strong commitment to their cause. Even so, it appears that they have become so consumed with their narrow effort to kill coal in America that they've lost sight of what it will really take to rein in the world’s CO2 emissions.
As an organization that has a significant part of its membership working in the power generation industry, principally coal-fired boilers and the installation of pollution control systems, we do not challenge the argument that CO2 emissions pose a real problem to our world. In fact, the Boilermakers union worked very closely with the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that, we believe, would have taken our country in the best practical direction for dealing with this global issue. Unfortunately, it failed to pass the Senate.
I firmly believe that if mankind is going to substantially reduce global CO2 emissions over the next 50 years, we are going to have to develop effective carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies — and we are going to have to implement them on all of the world’s coal-fired power generation systems. Unilaterally shutting down a large percentage of America’s coal-fired systems, as is currently underway due largely to EPA regulations, will have significant collateral cost to many jobs and businesses at essentially no gain in our climate change battle.
Why ending U.S. coal-fueled power will not save the climate
HERE’S THE FUNDAMENTAL problem, as I see it, with the anti-coal movement’s domestic environmental agenda. The United States could shut down every coal-fired power generation system on our soil today — every one of them — and within a few years China alone would more than make up for the difference in CO2 emissions into our shared atmosphere.
Elizabeth Muller, executive director of the climate research group, Berkeley Earth, makes this point succinctly in an article published in the New York Times, April 12:
“China’s greenhouse gas emissions are twice those of the United States and growing at 8 percent to 10 percent per year. By 2020 . . . China will emit greenhouse gases at four times the rate of the United States, and even if American emissions were to suddenly disappear tomorrow, world emissions would be back at the same level within four years as a result of China’s growth alone.”
According to the International Energy Agency, there has been virtually no overall progress in cleaning up global emissions. Said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven, “Despite . . . a boom in renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago.”
I don’t point this out to belittle the green energy effort. I have argued for many years that we, as a country, and power generation companies themselves, need to have a diversified “stock-like” portfolio of power generation systems in our collective fleet. But I do point it out in an effort to refocus the energy and strategy of those who are committed to fight against man’s direct and significant contribution to climate change.
At the end of 2012, approximately 1,200 coal plants were being planned across 59 countries — about three-quarters of them in China and India, according to the World Resources Institute. I expect most of those will have no emissions control systems whatsoever. And while natural gas-fueled plants are replacing some coal-fired plants, they too contribute their share of CO2 emissions to our shared atmosphere, and not just in the combustion process.
Regulating the U.S. coal fleet out of business will feel like we are doing something. There will be lots of infomercials and political claims, and the gas industry will make billions. But the fact is that for all it costs American working families and businesses that rely on coal, we will not have significantly impacted the world CO2 emission levels that feed global warming.
To really reduce those levels, we must find a way to limit the CO2 spewing from the smokestacks of other countries, most notably China. The Chinese have invested so much in coal-fired power generation systems, and continue to do so at a remarkable pace, that we cannot expect them to turn away from these systems for decades to come. They will burn coal. They will pump massive amounts of CO2 into our shared atmosphere. And so will many other countries. Shuttering America’s coal fleet will do absolutely nothing to change this.
Emissions must be fixed globally, not just nationally
SACRIFICING OUR OWN coal-fired power generation systems may be a victory for the environmentalists, their allies and the natural gas industry in this country, but it really is not a solution to the looming global warming crisis.
Our atmosphere is shared with the rest of the world. CO2 emissions will not only impact the atmosphere, they will affect our oceans and, in time, our way of life. While our courts and legislators fiddle with regulating emissions that cross state lines, and the EPA prepares their next round of impossible domestic regulations, those involved seem incapable of grasping the global nature of the problem.
We need a way to capture the coal-related CO2 emissions of every nation. So many countries are financially bound to their older-technology coal-fired systems that a mass shutdown and shift like we are experiencing in the USA is unlikely to happen even within the next several decades. I suppose the USA could stand on the world stage and say, “We did it, you can, too.” But that’s not going to get it done. We need advanced environmental CCS systems.
In the meantime, billions of tons of CO2 will be emitted into our shared atmosphere. Billions of dollars will have been effectively wasted in this country in our forced transition from coal to other fuel sources. And so many Boilermaker and other craft families will have been unnecessarily impacted by a national decision that, unfortunately, does not address its stated purpose: to save our planet from global warming disaster.
I think it’s clear that our collective world initiative to address climate change must take into account more that just a blind passion to kill coal as an energy source. Nations must collaborate in building a common sense solution that recognizes that many nations will continue to use coal to generate their power. Given this, the world has little alternative but to develop systems that will limit ongoing CO2 emissions.
We need a World Environmental Fund dedicated to CCS technology development
OUR COLLECTIVE CLIMATE CHANGE focus needs to be on research and development of carbon capture & storage technologies. Of course, significant funding will be necessary to advance this R&D. But ultimately this will be the best global solution to limiting CO2 emissions.
It may feel great to provide government funding for a wind farm or a new solar energy project, but that money would be better spent in concert with other nations on CCS technology to remove carbon dioxide from the world’s coal-fired power generation fleet. That is where the real benefit for lower emissions can be found. Renewable energy may eventually mitigate some of our global emissions, but it will not make the necessary global difference within the next several decades.
Our principal need in addressing climate change is to get those CO2 emissions under control. Shutting the world’s coal-fired power generation fleet is not going to happen in our generation or even the next. But, I think that if the world can build a space station and jointly operate it, the world can build effective CCS technology.
To accelerate CCS development and deployment, we need a World Environmental Fund that is singularly focused. While the United Nations administers the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), that fund takes a more piecemeal approach to assist developing nations with energy and climate-related issues. What is needed is a technology that makes all current and future coal plants environmentally friendly. CCS holds that promise.
Much like we have seen with private space ventures and other technological achievements, such a fund could offer a competition award to the first, or several, companies or organizations that produce an effective CCS-type technology breakthrough that can actually go into production and installation on the world’s power-generation fleet sooner than later. Of course, there are always lots of what-ifs and obstacles, but I think it’s worth some serious world-leader thought.
Our global ship is leaking badly. Plugging the American hole and maybe some Western European holes is not enough. We need a way to plug the bigger holes, the more persistent holes in our global ship. We are losing more and more ground, almost literally, while we focus just on plugging coal-sourced emissions from the American hole.
The world needs effective CCS technology as soon as possible. If Elizabeth Mueller is correct, all the CO2 emission reductions that America accomplishes will be outpaced by new emission sources in just a few years. Our unilateral domestic efforts, in that case, will have done nothing to truly address world climate change... and at significant domestic economic and personal cost, not to mention the future cost to our planet.