Monday, June 28, 2010

'Carbon storage' faces leak dilemma

The Age, June 28, 2010
    Dreams of slowing global warming by storing carbon emissions from power plants could be undermined by the risk of leakage, according to a study.
    Rich countries have earmarked tens of billions of dollars of investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that is still only at an experimental stage.
    Under CCS, carbon dioxide (CO2) would be snared at source from plants that are big burners of oil, gas and coal.
    Instead of being released into the atmosphere, where it would contribute to global warming, the gas would be buried in the deep ocean or piped into underground chambers such as disused gas fields.
    CCS supporters say the sequestered carbon would slow the pace of man-made warming. It would buy time for politicians to forge an effective treaty on greenhouse gases and wean the global economy off cheap but dirty fossil fuels.
    Critics say CCS could be dangerous if the stored gas returns to the atmosphere. They also say its financial cost, still unknown, could be far greater than tackling the source of the problem itself.
    The new research, published by the journal Nature Geoscience, wades into the debate with an estimate of capturing enough carbon to help limit warming to two degrees celsius, the figure set in last December's Copenhagen Accord.
    Storing CO2 in the ocean will contribute to acidification of the sea, with dangers that reverberate up the food chain, says its author, Gary Shaffer, a professor at the Danish Centre for Earth System Science in Humlebaek, Denmark.
    It also carries a higher risk of being returned to the atmosphere by ocean currents and storms.
    Underground storage is a better option, but only if the geological chamber does not have a significant leak or is breached by an earthquake or some other movement, says the paper.
    The gas will have to be stored for tens of thousands of years to avoid becoming a threat to future generations, a scenario similar to that for nuclear waste, it says.
    This means less than one percent of the stored volume can be allowed to leak from the chamber per 1000 years.
    To offset any bigger leak, re-sequestration would be needed - in other words, grabbing an equivalent amount of CO2 from the air and storing it. But this would be a cost burden that could last for millennia.
    "The dangers of carbon sequestration are real and the development of CCS should not be used as a way of justifying continued high fossil fuel emissions," said Shaffer.
    "On the contrary, we should greatly limit CO2 emissions in our time to reduce the need for massive carbon sequestration and thus reduce unwanted consequences and burdens over many future generations from the leakage of sequestered CO2."
    Until only recently, CCS was widely dismissed as fantasy or a last-ditch option. In the last five years, though, it has become progressively enshrined as a favourite policy among rich economies.
    In 2008, the Group of Eight (G8) summit recommended launching 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2010.
    This target "remains a challenge", according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris.
    It estimates that over the past two years, countries have committed $US26 billion ($A30 billion) in CCS projects. Thanks to this funding, "between 19 and 43" large-scale demonstration projects would be launched by 2020.

    Friday, June 25, 2010

    Energy subsidies put at $550bn a year

    By Javier Blas

    Financial Times, Published: June 7 2010 03:00 | Last updated: June 7 2010 03:00

    The world economy spends more than $550bn (€460bn, £380bn) in energy subsidies a year, about 75 per cent more than previously thought, according to the first exhaustive study of the financial assistance devoted to oil, natural gas and coal consumption.

    The study by the International Energy Agency, the western countries' oil watchdog, says phasing out subsidies over the medium term, as agreed last year by the Group of 20 leading industrial economies, would trigger vast savings in energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

    Past efforts have foundered, as many countries have vested interests in providing lower-cost fuel to citizens and industries, and in propping up sectors such as mining. The IEA estimates that in 2008, the latest year for which data are available, 37 large developing countries spent about $557bn in energy subsidies, according to a draft seen by the Financial Times. Previous estimates put it at about $300bn. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and China top the ranking, according to the report.

    Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA in Paris, said removing subsidies was a policy that could change the energy game "quickly and substantially".

    "I see fossil fuel subsidies as the appendicitis of the global energy system which needs to be removed for a healthy, sustainable development future," he said.

    The new report will be discussed at the G20 summit in Toronto this month.

    The IEA estimates that energy consumption could be reduced by 850m tonnes equivalent of oil - or the combined current consumption of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand - if the subsidies are phased out between now and 2020. The consumption cut would save the equivalent of the current carbon dioxide emissions of Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Spain. Critics of energy subsidies say they encourage wasteful consumption, reduce global energy security, impede investment in clean energy and undermine efforts to deal with climate change.

    They also claim that subsidies are a burden on national budgets, with financial support to oil, natural gas and coal sometimes larger than education or health spending.

    But supporters, including some G20 members which reluctantly signed the statement last year, such as India, say subsidies help the poor and control inflation.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    100pc green energy possible by 2020: report

    By Jennifer Macey

    ABC News Online, Tue Jun 22, 2010
    A Melbourne University report says all of Australia's energy could come from renewable sources by 2020 as opposed to the Federal Government's target of 20 per cent.
    The Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan was launched in Canberra this morning by Coalition Senator Judith Troeth, independent Senator Nick Xenophon and Greens Senator Christine Milne.
    Currently, wind and solar power provide less than 1 per cent of Australia's total energy needs.
    The most commonly cited obstacle to renewable energy is base load power - the need to provide electricity 24 hours a day, during the day and night when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.
    But the Beyond Zero Emissions report insists Australia could achieve the 100 per cent renewable energy goal.
    Beyond Zero Emissions executive director Matthew Wright says the 10-year road map focuses on technologies that are already commercially available such as wind and large-scale solar thermal.
    "The inherent design of a solar thermal plant is that it stores its heat away for night time," he said.
    "We've modelled that from our 12 solar regions across the country and our 23 wind sites that we get 100 per cent of our power needs, 365 days a year, 24-7."
    The report says the goal would also depend on a $92 billion upgrade to create one national electricity grid that would link the renewable projects to the city and urban areas.
    University of Melbourne Energy Institute professor Mike Sandiford says cost should not impede the switch to renewable energy.
    "To do it in 10 years is in many ways akin to a infrastructure roll out of a wartime-like operation in many senses," he said.
    "But the important point of the plan is that costs are not a real impediment. The total costs of our business as usual comes down to about a cup of coffee per person per day."
    But the modelling for the report assumes that by 2020 energy use will drop by half through energy efficiency savings.
    Professor Sandiford says the plan is also based on a shift towards public transport and electric cars, which he says would offset any projected increases in electricity use.
    "In many ways the plan is looking across the total energy domain," he said.
    Senator Troeth says it is a worthy goal to aim for 100 per cent renewable energy but remains to be convinced about the path to get there.
    "The ambitions of this report are commendable ... [but] I may not agree with all of the recommendations put forward in this report," she said.
    "It's important that we continue to have a robust debate on the most effective and efficient ways to reduce carbon emissions."

    Monday, June 21, 2010

    Taking a punt on endangered species

    The Age, June 19, 2010
      PROFESSOR Hugh Possingham's idea is simple - it is called endangered species lottery.
      First, the government creams off $20 million from taxes on gambling revenues as a prize. The names of Australian endangered species are written on balls and put in a barrel. On Melbourne Cup day the environment minister draws a ball from the barrel live on television just before the big race.
      Landholders who have populations of the winning species on their property are given a slice of the $20 million pie, with more money apportioned for larger populations.
      Possingham, a world renowned ecologist and mathematician at the University of Queensland, says the lottery would encourage landowners to look after and even increase these populations of endangered species in the hope of winning money.
      It is the most compelling idea Possingham can think of to engage the public with efforts to protect Australia's fast disappearing flora and fauna.
      A majority of scientists say on the best available evidence the world is facing two environmental catastrophes. The first is global warming. The second is the rapid loss of biodiversity - the mass extinction of plant and animal species at up to 1000 times the natural rate. But over the last year the public appears to have lost interest in the message.
      The 2010 Lowy Institute poll found just 53 per cent of people think climate change is important, crashing from 75 per cent in 2007. A January Essential Media poll found protecting the environment is ranked by just 4 per cent of people as the most important issue facing Australia, with 16 per cent ranking it as a top three issue.
      Climate scientists are also looking for ways to engage the public. The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies held a private meeting this week drawing together representatives of organisations like the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO to discuss ways to better communicate climate science to the public. It is planning to draw up a climate science ''national communications charter'' for scientific bodies and universities.
      After the government shelved its trading scheme until 2013 in April, the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, is also looking to rebuild a ''small p'' political consensus on climate change. The government has now committed $30 million for an advertising campaign to ''educate the community on climate change, including climate change science''.
      Critics, like the executive director of the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, say the government has only itself to blame because it neglected simpler programs, like voluntary action from households to reduce their emissions, that better engages the public.
      But Wong told the Herald a nascent community consensus still exists on action on climate change, despite the souring of the political mood. ''What Barack Obama said, much more eloquently than I have, is that you are asking people to do something today for their children's generation and that is the hard part of the debate,'' she says.
      ''In many ways there is a more sensible approach to climate change in the community than there is in Parliament, but I think we can strengthen that understanding within the community which is necessary for the kinds of decisions Australia will need to take in the next couple of years.''
      Stuart Black, the managing director of advertising agency Ward6, agrees those with an environmental cause need to offer a personal connection with their message.
      ''Whether it is governments, businesses or lobby groups, the communication in support of environmental action needs to be much simpler than it has been in the last couple of years and needs to focus on the tangible consequences of the desired consumer response.''
      In his recent book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan depicts Roosevelt as a political leader who was able to successfully sell an environmental populist cause. Roosevelt's environmental legacy is grand. He set aside more land - 93 million hectares - for national parks than all the other US presidents after him combined.
      One hundred years later Possingham says the debates about protecting the environment have become utilitarian. Concepts like ecosystem functions, renewable energy credits and cap-and-trade emissions trading schemes are a cold shower for a confused public.
      Like Roosevelt, Possingham says there is an imperative to leave the environment better than we found it for no reason that some of the billions of people yet to be born might like to see a hairy-nosed wombat or a Gouldian finch one day.
      ''If we lose that then there will be a large group of people who will lose something that makes them happy. That seems like a pretty simple message to sell.''