Sally Benson is Stanford University’s professor of energy resources engineering. She talked to Inside Energy after the Quest carbon capture and storage facility in Alberta, Canada, achieved a significant step forward in its first year: more than one million tonnes of CO2 emissions captured and stored underground.
We're nearly a year on from the 2015 United Nations (UN) climate change summit in Paris, during which world leaders agreed to work towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions and keeping the global temperature increase to well below 2° Celsius. What are your views on the progress made since?
Paris has energised international awareness of climate issues. As we come to a year since the summit, the current level of interest and attention among the general public appears to be rising. I've found that pleasantly surprising.
The European Union's recent decision to ratify the commitment alongside the USA and China, two of the world's biggest emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2), came sooner than many of us ever expected. We are now seeing the world's first global agreement on how to tackle climate change. That's extremely encouraging.
That said, I remain concerned that we're still not close to the pathway of limiting global temperature rises to less than 2° Celsius. I'm concerned that some countries are simply not going to be able to meet their commitments to reduce emissions and that even these are just the beginning of a set of agreements needed to limit warming to 2o Celsius.
Coal is still a big issue, for example, and I believe that many countries are still not fully taking advantage of the environmental benefits that natural gas can provide as a substitute for it.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified carbon capture and storage (CCS) as hugely important in the fight against global warming. Yet adoption has not been as fast as some expected. What is defining the pace of development?
I think it's a combination of global economics and the current direction of the energy transition.
There is plenty of support for more renewable energy. There are advocates for greater energy efficiency. And I think there's strong alignment between both of those actions and decarbonisation goals which makes it easier for governments to justify strong policies for them.
CCS has never really achieved that degree of consensus. Support for it has been on a roller-coaster since the early days. Government funding has faded with recent economic downturns.
But things are changing. Globally there are now 15 large-scale CCS projects, with a further seven under construction. The total CO2 capture capacity for these 22 projects is around 40 million tonnes per year.
It is my belief that if we are ever to reach 100% decarbonisation in this century, or net-zero emissions, between 10% and 15% of that will be because of CCS. This is technology we cannot afford to ignore.
How significant is the fact that the Shell-operated Quest facility in Alberta, Canada, has captured and stored 1 million tonnes of CO2 emissions from oil sands operations within its first year?
It's significant and exciting. Think of the issues that currently shape our approach to the future of energy. The future of renewables is hotly debated at the moment, as is energy efficiency and how we approach nuclear power. The electrification of transport and heating are also big issues in how we think of the future of energy.
CCS is another one. Yet there is a sense that it is still to meet its potential. That needs to change. Think of all the effective international actions, policies and investment that have been rightfully put behind renewables in recent years. If the same level of effort was put into CCS, it could make a real difference.
Take solar, for example. A decade ago solar was practically ten times more expensive than other forms of electricity. Look at it today. It's competitive and being seen as playing a big role in the future of energy. But that is the result of an enormous effort and collective investment.
For CCS the perceived cost and uncertainty surrounding it have been major barriers to its adoption. That has fostered a sense of scepticism. Apart from highly visible projects such as Saskpower's Boundary Dam project in Estovan, Canada and the Weyburn-Midale project in Saskatchewan, there have not been many examples that people can easily point to.
The success of Quest is vital if CCS is to get on the market quickly. As academics, we can do all the laboratory research to show the technology's power. But until we have the industry implementing projects and sharing their insights, we're not going to make the significant progress required to meet our climate goal.
So this million-tonne milestone is welcome both for its arrival ahead of schedule and for the way it will raise the profile of CCS globally.