DURBAN, South Africa—The roughly 3,000 fossil fuel–fired power plants in North America—Canada, Mexico and the U.S.—emit 6 percent of global greenhouse gases, or nearly as much as all of the European Union. In fact, coal-fired power plants around the globe are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
In other words, coal is largely responsible for climate change. Burning coal alone contributes more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. "Whatever you hear from time to time, a big part of electricity is produced from coal," argued Philippe Joubert, deputy CEO of power equipment manufacturer Alstom at the climate talks here on December 6. "This will continue."
That's why so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a mark of seriousness in efforts to combat climate change; Joubert calls it "mandatory." Because the world seems to have little interest in restraining coal burning—it continues to increase, driven largely by China and India—capturing the CO2 before it enters the atmosphere is the only real way to tackle such emissions.
"There are more than enough discovered hydrocarbons to fry the planet," Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics and Political Science told Scientific American. "You can do CCS or you can bust two degrees [Celsius of warming]."
That is why the negotiations here in Durban approved CCS as a potential technology under the Clean Development Mechanism—a way to provide funds from developed to developing countries for emission-reducing infrastructure in return for credit against the developed countries' CO2 emission quotas. Unfortunately, the mechanism is a part of the Kyoto Protocol. And the protocol will expire at the end of next year without a successor—unless one is agreed on this week in Durban.
Regardless, the world seems to be closing down more CCS plants than it opens: The E.U.'s flagship CCS project at Schwarze Pumpe was cancelled on December 5 due to local German opposition. Canada has had a CO2-sequestration project running for years now in the Weyburn oil field in Saskatchewan but has yet to expand operations to the tar sands that are single-handedly increasing that country's emissions—which violate its obligations under Kyoto. U.S. power company AEP recently turned down the opportunity to expand the world's first project to combine CO2 capture and storage at one site—Mountaineer in West Virginia. China, the world's largest emitter largely because of its coal burning, has a few pilot projects and is considering more.
Even more importantly, whereas China may be able to afford CCS, other developing countries like South Africa certainly cannot at a price of roughly $1 billion to add the technology to a one-gigawatt coal-fired power plant, per Brad Page, CEO of the Global CCS Institute in Australia. And South Africa consumes a lot of coal, generating 92 percent of its electricity and exporting $10 billion worth to Europe and China—even turning it into 30 percent of the diesel for trucks and jet fuel that it uses domestically.
In South Africa's bid to continue economic growth—and spread electricity to the more than 2 million South Africans who currently lack it—the republic is building more coal-fired plants. In fact, national utility Eskom recently received a $3.75-billion loan from the World Bank to build six 800-megawatt coal-burning units at the Medupi power plant in Limpopo Province as well as much smaller renewables projects.