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Carbon Capture and Storage--Nature’s Way

2008/11/5

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In a few short weeks governments from across the world will meet in Poznan, Poland for the next round of United Nations climate change negotiations.

The talks come against a backdrop of financial turmoil and market instability with well over a trillion US dollars being spent to prop up the banking system.

They also come against a backdrop of continuously rising greenhouse gas emissions, up 2.5 per cent according to the latest figures.

We cannot delay in resolving the banking crisis, but neither can we drag our heels on the climate challenge.

One solution being which has been gaining an enthusiastic head of steam internationally and attracting significant investments over recent months is carbon capture and storage.

The idea is that emissions from power stations and other sources can be consigned and contained to faults and fractures in the Earth’s surface.

A few weeks ago the European Parliament voted for all coal-fired power stations to have carbon capture and storage technology by 2015 and for an investment of $14 billion in 12 pilot projects.

Canada is spending $2 billion on the technology and the United States has the $1 billion FutureGen project to which India has also signaled support. Norway, the United Kingdom and now Australia also have carbon capture and storage projects.

Japan is looking to undersea burial of CO2. Over 20 utilities and power-related companies are each investing to bring the technology on commercial stream.

By some estimates, carbon capture and storage globally could contribute to 15 per cent to over 50 per cent of the global effort to stabilize emissions of greenhouse gases at 450 to 750 parts per million.

However not everyone is so convinced. Some environmentalists and scientists are concerned that the technology is not tried and tested and that CO2, instead of being locked away, could suddenly bubble back into the atmosphere.

Stored in the sea, the gas might also return accelerating the acidification of the oceans with impacts on coral reefs to fish stocks critics argue.

Like biofuels, once touted as a silver bullet to the climate crisis, carbon capture and storage could also back-fire and ricochet in terms of public opinion.

Yet there is another form of carbon capture and storage that has been perfected over millions if not hundreds of millions of years.

Forests naturally remove carbon locking it away in trunks and branches and returning it to soils when leaves are shed.

The Poznan meeting needs to move forward on this agenda under the banner Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).

Currently instead of maintaining and enhancing nature’s carbon capture and storage, the world is doing the opposite.

Indeed some 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions are coming from the clearing and burning of forests.

Paying tropical forested countries to manage rather than fell forests could reverse this.

Nine countries have already expressed formal interest in receiving assistance through a new UN-REDD Programme-Bolivia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Tanzania, Viet Nam, and Zambia.

At the UN climate change convention in Poznan governments will be looking at a fund or perhaps even formal carbon markets in order to realize a REDD regime.

According to one estimate, Indonesia has the potential to be compensated $1 billion a year if its deforestation rate was reduced to one million hectares annually.

Meanwhile, a new assessment by UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre estimates that some 15 per cent of carbon is locked away in trees and forests in the world’s National Parks and protected areas.

Boosting investment in the protected area estate could not only increase carbon capture and storage but trigger a wide range of other benefits from soils and water stabilization, reduced biodiversity loss to improved tourism revenues and job creation in the conservation sector.

It is not just forests that store or “bio-sequestrate” carbon-other natural systems have the ability to either release or absorb it from peatlands and wetlands up to grasses and shrubs.

And what about agriculture? Over the past 10,000 years, farming has domesticated and promoted single season annually cropped cereal, oil and leguminous plants.

But what about perennials? Experts suggest that moving ‘back to the future’ to these kinds of multi-year crops with deep roots will boost soil fertility and stability 50 fold.

Such crops may also prove more resilient in a climate changed world where, according to estimates, yields of current kinds of rice could fall by up to 40 per cent in Japan and elsewhere during the 21st century as a result of extreme weather events.

Perennial crops are also 50 per cent better at carbon capture and storage than their annual cousins. Because they do not need to be planted every year, the use of farm machinery is reduced and they require fewer inputs of pesticides and fertilizers--reducing greenhouse gas emissions further.

Scientists are now looking at how to select, breed and domesticate perennial crops but the sums currently being invested are small when compared to the benefits.

As the world struggles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, seemingly simple and straight forward technological fixes such as carbon capture and storage may seem a sensible way out.

But does it make our economies more resource and more fuel efficient or simply perpetuate a dependency on fossil fuels and energy insecurity: in short is it really part of a push towards a transition to a low carbon Green Economy?

And what if the hundreds of billions now being invested were in part diverted into biological carbon capture and storage?

Perhaps here we have, as the Americans say, a bigger bang for our buck utilizing a tried and tested natural system.

One that not only removes greenhouse gases but addresses wider sustainability challenges including a true Green Revolution and the poverty-related UN Millennium Development Goals.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

Profile

Achim Steiner

Achim was born in Carazinho, Southern Brazil in 1961 of German parents. After recieving an MA from the University of London, specializing in development economics, he worked at several international environmental organizations. Before joining UNEP, he served as Director General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN, HQ in Switzerland) from 2001 to 2006. IUCN compiles the Red List of Threatened Species. He has served as the Executive Director of UNEP since June 2006. His hobbies are moviegoing and shopping in flea market. He is a father of two.

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