Summary: Meeting aggressive climate change mitigation objectives and limiting the rise of atmospheric CO2 to 450 parts per million may depend on the ability to capture carbon from power plants and industry, derive energy from biomass, and even pair the two to go “carbon negative” and draw down CO2 from the atmosphere.
According to an international effort to compare and assess 18 models of the global energy-climate-economic system organized by Stanford University’s Energy Modeling Forum, worldwide efforts to mitigate dangerous climate change and halt the rise of carbon dioxide (CO2) to 450 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere may depend on two technologies: the ability to capture carbon from power plants and industrial facilities and store it in geological formations and to derive energy from biomass.
The researchers agreed that global greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut in half by 2050 and fall to zero or even below that by 2100 in order to keep atmospheric concentrations of these climate-warming gases below the equivalent of 450 ppm of CO2. That would give the world a roughly even chance of halting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, an internationally-agreed target intended to prevent the most dangerous effects of climate change.
Meeting the 450 ppm goal means the power sector must be completely carbon-free by 2050. Using carbon capture and storage (or CCS) technology at power plants can help. But capturing carbon may be irreplaceable in the industrial and heat sectors, where there are few other options to reduce CO2. Unfortunately, CCS is currently expensive and still at a demonstration stage. If it does not become widely available soon, aggressive climate goals may become virtually impossible—only four of the 18 models could even generate a feasible solution to meet the 450 ppm goal without CCS.
Biomass is also important because of its versatility. Energy from crops, wood, and waste can be used to produce low-carbon fuels for power generation, heat, industry, and transportation. In addition, since biomass captures carbon from the air as it grows, pairing biomass energy with CCS can even draw down atmospheric CO2 levels. Going “carbon negative” may be necessary, the modelers find, as it allows the world to compensate later in the century for the likely possibility we will overshoot the 450 ppm goal in the nearer-term.
Publication: “The role of technology for achieving climate policy objectives: overview of the EMF 27 study on global technology and climate policy strategies,” Climatic Change 123 (3-4), April 2014: 353-367.
Authors: Elmar Kriegler is vice chair and Gunnar Luderer is a researcher in the Sustainable Solutions research domain at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. John P. Weyant is professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. Geoffrey J. Blanford is a program manager, Richard Richels is senior technical executive, and Steven K. Rose is senior project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute’s Energy and Environmental Analysis Research Group. Volker Krey is deputy program director and Keywan Riahi is program director at the Energy Group of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Leon Clarke is a senior research economist and Jae Edmonds is chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Allen Fawcett is chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Economics Branch. Massimo Tavoni is director and deputy coordinator of the Climate Change Economics units at Euro-Mediterranean Center for Climate Change (CMCC) and Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) respectively. Detlef P. van Vuuren is a senior researcher at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and a professor in Integrated Assessment of Global Environmental Change at the Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University.
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- Will CCS technology mature in time to make a difference for climate mitigation efforts?
- What policies can and should be adopted to drive the maturation of CCS technology in the near-term?
- Can we harvest enough biomass at scale to make a difference in the climate fight, and to do so without eroding climate benefits by causing other land-use changes?
- What are the prospects for going “carbon negative”?
- Without CCS, how can we decarbonize the industrial and heat sectors?
- Without advanced biofuels, how can we decarbonize the rapidly-growing air transportation sector?