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Sustainability (Carbon Capture)

March 3, 2014

The World Economic Forum recently issued its Global Risks 2014 Insight Report. Based on a survey of the Forum's multi-stakeholder communities, the report maps 31 global risks according to the level of concern, likelihood and impact, and interconnections among them.

Of the top 10 global risks, three of them relate to the environment - with "Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation" listed as the fifth highest global risk behind "Fiscal crises in key economies," "Structurally high unemployment/underemployment," "Water crises," and "Severe income disparity" as the top four.

Quoting from the report, "Climate the key driver of...uncertain and changing weather patterns causing an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as floods and droughts. It is important to consider the combined implications of these environmental risks on key development and security issues, such as food security, and political and social instability, ranked eighth and 10th respectively."

Over the past two weeks, I have written about the debate between individuals who feel that climate change can only be positively impacted by a comprehensive global treaty and national legislation, and those who feel that smaller, more practical agreements are the most realistic way of altering behavior.

Separate from these camps is a small, but growing group of scientists and environmentalists who think that we need to find more solutions to capturing and storing carbon emissions at the same time that we are trying to decrease these emissions. Recognizing that we have pretty much failed to control worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, and that atmospheric carbon now stands at an unprecedented concentration of over 400 parts per million, some experts are advocating increased attention to finding more solutions to capturing and storing carbon emissions in a commercially viable way.

Carbon capture has been around for many years. Many industries, including the oil and gas industries, have used various methods of capturing carbon dioxide for their own recovery purposes. But the idea of mitigating climate change through widespread carbon capture and storage is a relatively new concept, and there are relatively few such projects operating around the world.

According to an easy-to-read article on "How Carbon Capture Works" found on , there are three main steps to carbon capture and storage: trapping and separating the CO2 from other gases, transporting the captured CO2 to a storage location, and storing the CO2 far away from the atmosphere.

Carbon capture can be either post-combustion or pre-combustion, and both methods are currently being used in the field of natural gas. These methods have the potential of preventing 80 to 90 percent of a power plant's emissions from getting into the atmosphere. Carbon transportation is typically by means of a pipeline although ships and trucks are also used. So, that leaves carbon storage as the remaining obstacle.

Again, according to "How Carbon Capture Works," there are two places that we have to store CO2 emissions: underground and underwater. Estimates project that the planet can store up to 100 trillion tons of carbon dioxide, which would allow 100 years of storage of all human-created emissions. This seems like a long time, but we obviously would need a much longer term solution. Many scientists believe that underwater storage is not viable because it may cause increased levels of ocean acidification, and it's been made illegal in many places.

Likewise, scientists and economists are concerned that carbon capture and storage requires a tremendous amount of additional energy use, and it also carries with it a substantial cost so as to not be economically viable. There's also the problem of potential leakage from underground or underwater storage and its potentially negative impact on the environment. So, carbon capture and storage is not a panacea for our problem of increased carbon emissions.

Critics argue that a focus on capturing and storing carbon is all wrong - that we should be focused on reducing our dependency on fossil fuels rather than trying to figure out ways of storing all those potentially harmful emissions somewhere.

This may be true, but it seems that both approaches (reducing carbon emissions and finding ways to capture and store carbon emissions) will be needed in order to prevent the kind of climate catastrophe that many scientists are predicting.

What do you think? Should we focus on reducing carbon emissions or finding ways of capturing them or both? Let us know by clicking here. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog with colleagues.

P.S. Did you know that if the Earth had no carbon dioxide in its atmosphere that the average temperature would be minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius)? So some greenhouse gas is a good thing, but too much CO2 warms the Earth's temperature potentially causing climate change and rising oceans.


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