Opinion | Saving the world by capturing emissions
Along with reducing emissions, India must promote the capturing of emissions to become the world leader in climate change mitigation
Inspired by Tim Flannery’s book Atmosphere of Hope, humanity can be optimistic that despite the growth of carbon emissions in 2017, we can limit the increase in global temperature. To do so, we must not only reduce carbon emissions but also find a way of capturing existing emissions.
In many ways, we have already crossed the rubicon. Even if we miraculously stop emitting any carbon today, the planet will still undergo an average temperature increase of 0.6 degree Celsius because of the sheer amount of carbon already present in the atmosphere and oceans.
The hottest year on record without an El Nino event was 2017, with the average global temperature being one degree Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. This was driven by an increase in energy demand in India and China, leading to global carbon emissions reaching a record high of 32.5 gigatons, reversing the plateau achieved in the three preceding years. The aim of the Paris agreement to limit the increase in average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius in the short term and 1.5 degrees Celsius in the long run is now under serious threat.
Yet, there remains a case for cautious hope. Global renewables-based electricity generation increased by 6.3% in 2017, now meeting a quarter of the world’s energy demand growth. At the same time, the cost of such resources is falling rapidly. Estimates from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) suggest that the global average cost of electricity generated from new onshore wind and solar photovoltaic sources already matches the cost of fossil fuel-fired electricity. Continuous technology improvements and competitive procurement practices mean that the cost of these renewables will become significantly cheaper than fossil fuel sources by 2020.
Steady progress is also being made to shift the oil dependent transport sector towards renewable options. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the number of electric vehicles rose from 1.98 million in 2016 to 3.11 million in 2017, an increase of more than 54%. It expects 125 million electric vehicles to be on the road by 2030. That figure can jump to 225 million, roughly 11.5% of the expected global car count, if battery costs continue to fall and countries implement policies that spur investment and help manufacturers achieve economies of scale.
With our future hanging in the balance, 2018–2020 is a critical time for countries to peak and then flatten their emissions trajectory, while simultaneously implementing ambitious solutions for reducing them at pace.
A key factor behind the adoption of the Paris Agreement was its bottom-up approach, encouraging countries to come up with their own action plans to mitigate climate change—the nationally determined contributions (NDCs). While these NDCs have been successful in increasing individual responsibility, more work needs to be done as projections estimate an increase in global temperature of 2.7-3.7 degrees Celsius based on current NDCs. The 2018 UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) and the subsequent NDCs then become crucial in determining the political commitment to enhanced climate action. The revised NDCs must include policies designed to promote the capture, storage and sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere and oceans.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects have had a chequered past. From ecological and ethical questions surrounding geo-engineering to the high costs involved in carbon neutral construction, large scale CCS programmes have traditionally limited themselves to afforestation as the means to capture emissions. While afforestation provides huge benefits and should be encouraged, it must be complemented by other initiatives that can capture emissions quickly and safely.
One such initiative that has floundered in the past, despite the technology being available, is the capturing and storage of CO2 from coal plants. This is simply because there is no market for stored CO2. Policy frameworks included in future NDCs will benefit from:
1) Actively promoting innovations and technologies that facilitate the safe re-utilization, rather than just the storage, of CO2, thereby creating incentives for private investment.
2) Appropriately valuing the social benefit of decarbonization and reducing the costs borne by CO2 storage companies accordingly.
3) Adopting best practices from successful global CO2 capture programmes to develop the expertise needed.
Another avenue for policymakers to consider is seaweed farming. It is estimated that the global commercial seaweed market will be worth $87 billion by 2024. Farmed seaweed, with its exceptional ability to capture CO2 from the oceans and produce bio-digested methane which can be substituted for natural gas, can play a substantive role in reducing carbon emissions. The relatively low production cost, the speed at which seaweed grows, the vast potential of the Indian coastline and the subsidies and grants offered by the government, are strong incentives for private sector expansion into seaweed farming.
How we mitigate climate change is a defining question for our generation. The commitment must be steadfast. Setting ambitious goals, scaling up infant technologies and fostering markets for capturing emissions will be key to our success.
Karan Paintal is a student at The Takshashila Institution, pursuing a graduate certificate in public policy