Sally Benson is Stanford University’s professor of energy resources engineering. She talked to Inside Energy after Shell's Quest project 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 Shell's Quest project 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.

Sally Benson

Sally Benson

Sally Benson is professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University in California, USA. A groundwater hydrologist and reservoir engineer, she is regarded one of the world's leading authorities on carbon capture and storage (CCS).

In 2005 she was a lead author of "Underground Geological Storage", a special report on CCS published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Two years later, she was one of a number of IPCC scientists, who along with former US vice president Al Gore, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change" and to "lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change".

Benson also serves as director of the Global Climate and Energy Project, a global partnership between industry and more than 15 universities globally to develop innovative, low-carbon energy initiatives for the world's future. She serves on the boards of directors of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Carbon Management Canada and has testified at US Congressional hearings on climate change technology.

Before joining Stanford in 2007, she was a director at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a research centre at the University of California that is supported by the US Department of Energy.

There is much debate over how the world will make the transition to a clean energy system. Do you believe it can happen within this century? And if so, how?

It can only happen through an urgent and collective effort.

My real hope is that the world pounces on every single option we have now to decarbonise. That means really grasping the opportunity to switch from coal to gas. That means investing in renewables and continuing to innovate so that the technology can have more impact. And that means getting on with CCS now.

A price on carbon is essential for moving CCS forward. A predictable price with a predictable ramp up over time will make the economics of CCS feasible. Without this, industry cannot make the case for the investment needed for CCS.

If we can do all of these things quickly, we have a good chance of meeting the UN climate agreement.

But failure to do so means running the risk of a future that is heavy on renewable technology but exceeds the 2° limit because we still need power and fuels when renewable energy is not available.

What are your biggest concerns?

I spend a lot of time in developing countries, and I am acutely aware that some of these regions are in dire need of more energy to support economic development and the wellbeing of their citizens.

In Europe and North America we have benefited economically from nearly unlimited access to fossil fuels. And now, world leaders have all agreed that things must change.

That's not the case for developing countries where the access to fossil fuel resources has been extremely limited and costly, and with the notable exception of China, infrastructure building has been slow and challenging.

Building an entire energy system to support a thriving economy without the backbone of hydrocarbons is unprecedented.

For now, finding ways to increase access to natural gas is the lowest-carbon pathway to providing this backbone of reliable energy in developing economies. Overtime, CCS can be added to further reduce emissions.

Does academia have a role to play in the energy transition?

Yes, it does. One of our most important roles is to prepare young people to take responsibility for the future direction the world takes on climate issues.

We are at our best looking at the next big thing in the energy transition. Industry is better at deploying technology and figuring out the evolutionary technological changes to make things more efficient and less expensive. Government is good at making and setting policies.

Academia should be looking at 10 to 50 years from now -- how are we progressing and what is it that we're going to need next? What is the next tranche of innovation in technology, policy, education and training that can help the industry progress?

The second role that academics can play is stepping back and taking stock of how things are going, and providing foresight that industry and governments might not be aware of. For instance I recently looked at California, where local government has a massive deployment schedule of utility-scale solar power.

But academic analysis quickly showed that, despite the effort and sense of triumphalism, the overall objective was still not on target. To achieve the intended 33% renewable energy target by 2020, current efforts need to be tripled or quadrupled. That was an example of academia being able to assess current progress while keeping in mind the longer view.

Sally Benson spoke to Kunal Dutta 

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