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The cost of Carbon

I have come to Edinburgh University to stand by a plaque which commemorates an achievement in 1756 in this place in which Professor Joseph Black first isolated carbon dioxide. Over two centuries later in the same spot they are leading worldwide efforts to capture and store carbon in an attempt to slow down global warming.

There’s now a fifth more carbon in the atmosphere than there was just in the year 2000 and the international energy agency talks about carbon capture and storage, CCS in the jargon, as the most important single new technology to prevent global warming.

The truth of course is that I haven’t just come to see a plaque. I’ve also come to talk to Professor Haszeldine, who leads the world’s largest research group studying the burgeoning science of carbon capture and storage. The process he is studying involves removing CO2 from the atmosphere, turning it into a liquid under high pressure and injecting it deep below ground, thus keeping it out of harms way and removing it from the atmosphere.

Going round the world with some C02 vacuum cleaner is some way off. But people are already capturing carbon emissions at source, trapping them as they make their way up industrial chimneys. Having got the gas, the favoured method at the moment of storing it is to drill a borehole down through the earth, into a layer of porous rock rather like a rigid sponge with small, tiny holes and you can inject the liquid into those pores. You’re looking for a place where we’ve got those pores in the rock, where a mud rock on top stops the carbon dioxide from coming back up to the surface.

You can put a price on carbon. In the EU there’s something called “carbon trading” – companies e.g. large power stations have to buy a permit which allows them to emit carbon. That carbon credit costs about $8 or $9 a tonne. The price of capturing carbon dioxide is probably 150. So it is about 16 times more expensive to capture the pollutant than it is to let it go into the air.

Haszeldine says that “What we’re talking about is long-term sustainability, to be able to carry on with our industrial society in the way which we’re accustomed to doing. The calculations are that to do carbon capture and storage would maybe cost 1% of the GDP”

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