A global slowdown in fossil fuel emissions has made the goal of keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius a real possibility, says a new study, but the world’s economies will need to deploy wide-scale carbon capture and storage practices in order to meet that target.
For the third year in a row, global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels has seen almost no growth, with zero growth in 2015 and a rise of just 0.2 per cent in 2016, a welcome result attributed to reduced use of coal in China as well as a worldwide growth in renewable energies.
“This third year of almost no growth in emissions is unprecedented at a time of strong economic growth,” said Professor Corinne Le Quéré, director of the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre and co-author of the new study, to the Guardian. “This is a great help for tackling climate change but it is not enough. Global emissions now need to decrease rapidly, not just stop growing.”
Led by an international team of climate experts, the new research tracks key indicators of climate change, matches them with global and national energy sector targets and forecasts the level of future reductions in CO2 outputs needed to meet the 2C threshold, generally considered to be the temperature rise past which environmental damage is expected to be catastrophic and irreversible. All the countries signing onto the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change agreed to the obligation to hold global warming to the 2C rise above pre-industrial levels.
But while the growth in emissions has stalled, the real challenge will be to deploy carbon capture technologies quick enough and on a large enough scale, say the study’s authors.
“Most scenarios rely on large-scale deployment of CCS, in the order of thousands of CCS facilities by 2030, to keep warming under 2C,” say co-authors of the study, published in the journal Nature — Climate Change. “At present, just a few tens of facilities are being planned.”
CCS technology is still in its infancy, with the short- and long-term effects of large-scale deployment not fully understood. In Canada, federal and provincial governments are currently putting billions of dollars into CCS research. In 2014, Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam power plant became the world’s first commercial scale coal power plant to use carbon capture and storage.
SaskPower claims that about 90 per cent of the carbon from the 110MW plant is being injected back into the ground in nearby oilfields. Yet the operation is far from an economic success —reports are that the project which cost $1.5 billion to retrofit the coal power plant near Estevan, Saskatchewan, will generate operating losses of $651 million over the next 30 years.
The new study’s authors say research into CCS must be combined with a range of alternative emission technologies to reach net-zero global emissions by mid-century.
“Ultimately, reaching zero emissions this century will require a rapid program of research and development to support a wide range of low-carbon technologies,” say the authors, “including systems to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”