Carbon Sequestration: "This is an interesting untested technology"
26 Mar, 2007 12:00 pm
Michael Dorsey, a carbon cycle scientist, reviews for Scitizen the different methods proposed to reduce carbon emissions.
The basic jist of carbon trading is within the context of the Kyoto Protocol in the sense that the protocol provides a mechanism whereby polluters can accumulate credits that are connected to an international market. Right now the only sanctions market, at least sanctioned by government, is in Europe, the European emission trading system. There are informal markets in the United States, the Chicago Climate Exchange and others. But polluters have a certain amount of credits allocated to them presently in the European system. They don't, at the moment, have to pay for those credits. They are allocated based on reports from the particular polluters about what they anticipate their emissions to be. A pool is traded based on those reports, and then credits are extended to the polluters.
In general, the way the trading works is that there is a certain cap that is established collectively across the polluters. If you are a polluter and you are emitting above the cap, in this case for CO2 the greenhouse gas that is in question, then you would have to purchase some credits from another holder of credits. If you are emitting below the cap, you have two options. You can sell those credits - they are valuable, and those who are polluting above the line are looking to purchase. Or, as some are doing now, you can retire credits and not sell them at all.
Basically, what happens is that the Protocol creates a system of exchange whereby certain polluters can buy and sell credits in order to meet their obligations. In an ideal world over time the cap is wratched down such that the total number of allowances is reduced, and thus we see a net reduction of CO2.
In a recent interview with scitizen.com, Michael Raupach, a carbon cycle scientist and a participant in the Global Carbon Projet, stated that, "Were not seeing any discernable effects of the Kyoto Protocol in global emissions.". Given that, does Kyoto Protocol need improving?
Absolutely. Unquestionably. Right now there are several problems with the Protocol. The least of which is that the United States is not a party, and it is the largest net contributor to CO2 on the Earth. Also, one of the concerns raised by some experts and negotiators that have been involved in constructing the Protocol points out the fact that China and India are relieved from participating. It seems increasingly likely that as we go forward into the future their will have to be some thinking about how to include China, India, and also the United States. At the present time China and India don't emit as much as the largest contributors or pollutes of carbon dioxide such as the United States. If we track and monitor their current economic development it's clear that, not at the per capita level, but collectively because their populations are so large, collectively their contributions to atmospheric CO2 and greenhouse gases in general, those contributions will exceed those of the largest polluters like the United States in short course.
There exists a carbon trading market for individual consumers organized by privately held companies. Will this market take us in the right direction?
At present, one of the big problems with the market in trading is that there isn't a coordinating body at the global level. The Kyoto Protocol doesn't establish an enforcement body to regulate how trading works, and nor does such a body exist at the different national levels in Europe or in the US. So at present, the trading market is largely unregulated. This creates a particular problem. In many ways it helps facilitate fraud and various other problems, because there isn't anyone tracking those that are selling credits. We've had some startling examples of fraud in the trading market, particularly, because of something that is allowed in the Kyoto Protocol called the Clean Development Mechanism. This was envisioned by the architects of the Kyoto Protocol ostensibly to facilitate sustainable development. The thinking was that countries in the global south that contribute collectively less CO2 to the atmosphere than the large polluting countries, as well as corporations in the global north, would be allowed to come up with projects that ideally would be carbon sinks or help sequester carbon. Some of these projects could be forestation projects, and things in the nature of solar energy projects. Those in the north who needed to obtain emissions allowances in order to reduce their overall carbon foot print, they could either fund projects in the south that would produce a certain number of credits, sequestration projects, or carbon sinks like forestry projects. When those credits were created, and a project was designated as sequestering a certain amount of carbon, there would be an associated amount of credits created. The company then would be able to purchase those credits, and a portion of that money would go into facilitating that particular development project that was designed to be a carbon sink or designed to capture carbon. What's happened though is that there have been projects that have been exposed as fraudulent. Such as, in the forestation projects, some projects in India, in Uganda, in Ecuador, and in Brazil. Those are some of the ones that colleagues and I tracked most recently where we found that the trees weren't actually planted, sometimes the amounts of trees that were designated in the early parts of the project weren't actually planted. In some of the worst cases nothing was actually done, but money was exchanged and credits were obtained. Yet, in a real sense no sequestration was performed.
A new method has been proposed for reducing CO2 emissions called Carbon Sequestration. What is the main idea behind this method?
This is an interesting untested technology. The idea is that CO2 can be captured and then injected in to deep wells. There's essentially one corporation British Petroleum that has been advancing this particular technology, and paying scientists and researchers, creating research institutes, most notably at Princeton University in the United States. British Petroleum is a consortium partner in large research initiative of which one part is trying to support research that advances understandings of sequestration. They have at least a couple of projects where they've been trying to demonstrate the feasibility of this. One of them is in the North Sea and another in Algeria. Where they reinject CO2 that emits from the facilities in those two occasions back into deep underground wells. The idea is that this reinjection could be a way to rapidly store large amounts of CO2 that would otherwise be omitted into the atmosphere. One of the things they're trying to work out, and this is one of the reasons why the science of this is so advanced, is once the CO2 is injected in to these deep wells, deep into the ground, one, two, three, four miles underground is they don't quite know how and to what extent the gas or CO2 will stay at those levels. To what extent is will seep back up out of the wells. They also don't understand the timing of the releases, over what sort of horizon will it emerge back into the atmosphere if it all.
Is this technology ready for use?
No. Absolutely not. Even the proponents of it, in this case the main proponent, British Petroleum, even as they make the case that this could possibly help out, they have been fortunately conservative saying, "we're trying to understand this". Really right now, we don't have time to do untested experiments. We've already done enough.
What is your opinion on the carbon tax?
Clearly a carbon tax would move us faster and further towards reducing the overall footprint of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One of the problems is that within the context of the Kyoto Protocol is the cap and trade system that it creates that I just described at the beginning of this discussion. For firms it's really about cap and TRADE, whereas for environmentalists and other concerned citizens it's about CAP and trade if you can understand the distinction.
Interview by Christopher Le Coq.
Michael Dorsey is assistant professor at the Dartmouth College in the Environmental Studies program.