Another co2alition of the willing?

It was the biannual gathering of over 100,000 Protestants in Bremen, a small town in Germany. As the articulate minister for environment, Sigmar Gabriel, came to participate in a discussion on energy security for a climate-secure world, many stood up. Soon the hall was full of blue placards, held high, all saying: “No to coal.” The minister, I could see, was riled. He believed he was the environmentalist in the crowd. He said he would build coal power stations, because the country was phasing out nuclear power. The plants would be clean: he would install a new technology, called carbon capture and storage (ccs), to take the offending carbon dioxide and bury it deep into the ground. Getting nowhere, the minister took a new tack. Germany had to invest in building coal plants with ccs for China’s and India’s sake. These countries would build coal power plants by the dozen. Germany needed to do something for them. But this missionary zeal did not impress his audience.

The issue is red hot today. A mix of coal and oil countries like Norway, Germany, the UK, Australia, the US and Saudi Arabia are hard-selling ccs as the crucible for climate mitigation. A high-level conference, just a fortnight ago, was hosted by the Norwegian government, at Bergen, for ministers to get a first hand view of the Sleipner platform, where, in a small pilot project, CO2 was being stored in deep saline aquifer in the sea. The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, R K Pachauri, endorsed the technology, saying already costs of storage were low compared to CO2 capture costs; these, too, would reduce in time. Nobua Tanaka, head of the International Energy Agency, concurred. His agency believes if the world needs to reach atmospheric CO2 levels of 450 ppm by 2050, it needs to build 30 ccs plants every year until 2030.

The hard-sell is understandable. The very idea is delicious. The industrialized world, which has to cut its fossil fuel emissions by an estimated 30 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050, can continue to build new coal power stations, now burying all the muck deep under the ground—in abandoned mines, gas or oil fields or ocean-beds. But why in our backyard?

So far, everybody agrees the technology is at best experimental. The ‘real world’ plant being built by FutureGen in the US has already been scrapped because of high prices. The much-subsidized UK plant is behind schedule. Swedish power giant Vattenfall is building the first small pilot plant—a 20th of the size of a modern coal plant—at Schwarze Pumpe, in Germany. The cost is still uncertain— US$ 50-US$ 100 per tonne of CO2. This is because the technology will involve expensive ways of first ‘capturing’ the CO2 from power plants, then laying pipelines over long distances to its burial place. Crucially, the coal power station using ccs must burn 20-30 per cent more coal for the same power. In other words, more coal will have to be first mined and transported, before the miracle happens to make emissions disappear. Moreover, pipelines could leak, and carbon dioxide is a deadly gas. Farmers in Germany are up in arms, saying they don’t want the pipeline under their land. Who does?

Then comes the big question. Who will be liable for leakage of the stored gas for the next 100-odd years—the life of CO2? The life of the plant will be much less—say, 30 years. So, who will be responsible for leakage during and after the plant closes? Insurance companies say they can take some cover during operations but not after; power companies want no liability. In the US, the move is to indemnify companies from lawsuits against gas leakages; Germany’s new law says companies will be liable but for a limited period; Australia dumps the entire responsibility on governments and communities.

In this situation, why is the industrialized world so desperate to ‘sell’ ccs to the developing world? Roughly a year ago, the British government sponsored a programme to identify possible CO2 burial sites in India. They want us to set up a pilot project. The British, Norwegians, Australians and others are shamelessly wooing the Chinese and anybody else from the other world.

It’s simple: The technology is too expensive to fund in their own backyard. So they want to use the clean development mechanism (cdm) to pay for this grand experiment.

At Poznan, the most controversial issue was the possible inclusion of ccs in cdm. I sat in the plenary when discussion came up. On the ccs -wanting side were Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia, EU and the US. On the other side, the rest of the world. Brazil said technology was important but there were too many unknowns. Venezuela argued they were not willing to take the risk for leakage; they wanted a 100-year guarantee. On behalf of island nations (most vulnerable to climate change), Jamaica argued if the technology was so good the developed world should adopt it, build with it and then—once risks were minimized—transfer it. At the Norwegian do, the Chinese official was equally categorical in rejecting the use of this ‘future’ technology to delay action in the industrialized world and to load costs on developing countries.

The industrialized world needs this fix. The inclusion of ccs will result in large amounts of certified reduction units in the market—one power plant with ccs will generate long-term quantities of CO2 being fixed at one place. This will reduce the transaction costs of cdm and flood the market with credits. More cheap reduction options for the rich world. Delicious.

No wonder big coal, oil and power businesses are laughing—all the way to the bank and back. Their governments have become technology-pimps. We are all being sold an ultimate dream—sin and bury it. Let’s see how gullible all of us can be.

Sunita Narain