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Funding boost nudges UK carbon capture and storage industry forwards

  • 09 Jul 2014, 11:25
  • Mat Hope

White Rose

The world uses a lot of fossil fuels - and there's plenty left to burn, if we want to - with all of the world's major economies still relying on coal, oil, and gas to provide most of their power. But the more countries burn, the more difficult it becomes to constrain global warming.

The trouble is, it's difficult to quickly swap a fossil fuel based energy system for one that's low-carbon. It takes considerable time and money to replace coal and gas with nuclear and renewables.

There is a technology that promises to allow continued fossil fuel use while providing emissions cuts, however - carbon capture and storage (CCS). In theory, CCS technology can capture emissions from fossil fuel power plants and lock them underground. That could allow power plants to burn fossil fuels with a fraction of the emissions.

For energy companies and governments wanting to tackle climate change, that's good news. But the bad news is that CCS has so far struggled to get off the ground, and is yet to be proven in a full scale power plant.

After nearly a decade of false starts, the UK's CCS industry is slowly getting moving. Earlier this year, the government allocated  £100 million to two new demonstration projects. Today, the European Union awarded one of those projects  €300 million for its next phase of development. After a long series of disappointments, the industry is hoping all the pieces are in place to make CCS a success.

Potential

It's increasingly likely that the world will need carbon capture and storage in a big way if it's going to reduce emissions quickly.

Research by thinktank Carbon Tracker suggests countries have already used about two-thirds of the fossil fuel allowance that will give a good chance of preventing more than two degrees of global temperature rise. That leaves a lot more coal, gas and oil in the ground than Carbon Tracker says can be burned.

 

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What the fossil fuel industry thinks of the 'carbon bubble'

  • 09 Jul 2014, 10:40
  • Mat Hope

Carbon Tracker

What does the fossil fuel industry make of the argument that it won't be allowed to burn its main product?

In 2011, campaign group Carbon Tracker warned that large portions of fossil fuel companies' assets are "unburnable" if the world intends to limit global warming to no more than two degrees.

If energy companies can't burn their reserves, they're overvalued, the group argues, in an analysis aimed squarely at the world's financial markets.

In the intervening years, the argument has gained some traction, including in key financial industry publications like the  Financial Times and  The Economist. But what do the fossil fuel companies themselves think?

While we weren't particularly optimistic that they'd want to talk about it, we asked oil, gas and coal companies for their take on the carbon bubble research. Many didn't respond. But some of the bigger companies did, acknowledging that while strong climate action could affect their activities, none of them considered it a threat to their business this century.

Responses

We contacted  76 oil, gas and coal companies, drawn from the main trade groups. Seven companies provided substantial responses. 58 companies didn't respond. We got no response from the coal industry.

Of the substantial responses, six came from major oil companies on the Fortune 500 list of the world's largest businesses, and followed a similar formula.

BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, and MOL all acknowledged climate change was real, and that climate policy posed a risk to their businesses - to an extent. They agreed that regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions should become more stringent over time, and probably will.

But none of the companies we asked saw climate action as a threat to their business in the coming decades - or if they did, they weren't prepared to share that assessment with us.

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Gatwick, Dawlish and the consequences of failing to adapt to climate change

  • 09 Jul 2014, 00:01
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Number 10

When things go wrong with our critical infrastructure, it makes national news. Cornwall was cut off from the rail network when the line collapsed into the sea at Dawlish during last winter's storms. And Gatwick airport closed on Christmas Eve when an electricity sub-station was flooded.

We all rely on things like drinking water treatment works, broadband connections, trunk roads, rail lines, power stations, airports and the electricity network to go about our daily lives.

So we should all be worried that efforts to make this infrastructure more resilient to flooding, drought or coastal erosion are patchy. That's according to a new report from the government's Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

It says the task is getting harder too, as climate change raises sea levels and changes rainfall patterns, although uncertainty about the UK's future climate makes it hard to know exactly how much.

The CCC says the number of the most important national infrastructure assets at high risk of flooding, for instance, will increase by at least 50 per cent by the 2050s because of climate change. Other climate risks are also expected to increase.

We've taken a look at the risks our infrastructure faces and efforts to boost resilience in different sectors.

Risks, multiplied

Climate change has already increased some risks compared to historical norms. Sea levels rose by 16 centimetres during the 20th century making tidal flooding and coastal erosion more likely. And the chance of very wet winters in southern England has increased by 25 per cent because of already-emitted carbon, according to preliminary results from the University of Oxford.

That means a substantial proportion of England's critical infrastructure is facing some level of flood risk today, as the chart below shows. The number of assets at risk is shown in blue. Those numbers are broken down into different levels of flood risk in shades of red and orange.

Risk Today

Source: CCC Adaptation Sub-Committee progress report 2014

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Factcheck: Has the US shale gas revolution saved more carbon than the entire solar and wind industry?

  • 07 Jul 2014, 14:55
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Dennis Dimick

The American shale gas revolution shaved more off global carbon emissions than all the world's windfarms and solar panels put together in 2012 according to Chris Faulkner, boss of US fracking firm Breitling Energy.

We think he's wrong. Even with some pretty heroic assumptions, he's only almost right. Let's see why.

The UK connection

Faulkner made his claim at a fringe meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He had been invited to speak by UK Conservative MP David Davis, a long-standing critic of climate change policies in general and wind energy in particular.

Faulker said:

"In 2012, the shift to gas has managed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 300 million tonnes. Compare this to the fact that all the wind turbines and solar panels in the world reduce carbon dioxide emissions, at a maximum, by 275 million tonnes. In other words, the US shale gas revolution has by itself reduced global emissions more than all the well-intentioned solar and wind in the world."

US coal emissions

To start with, let's look at US coal emissions. In 2012, US coal plants emitted 1,653 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That's 529 million tonnes below peak coal emissions, which were 2,182 million tonnes in 2005.

Let's generously assume all of that reduction is due to cheap shale gas displacing coal use. It takes about half as much carbon to generate a unit of electricity from gas as it does from coal. So the maximum carbon saving is half the coal emissions avoided. That's 265 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, in the same ballpark as the 300 million tonnes Faulkner claimed.

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Updated: The science of fracking and earthquakes

  • 04 Jul 2014, 11:55
  • Mat Hope

CC: G Thomasen

Should you worry that fracking will cause earthquakes? The short answer is: probably not.

But as more studies are conducted, researchers are developing their understanding of how the fracking process interacts with seismic activity.

Last year, a widely-cited study concluded that compared to other kinds of mining, fracking usually only causes minor tremors. But two papers in the past twelve months suggest the processes associated with fracking could increase the likelihood of small tremors.

We take a look at the evidence.

Fracking and earthquakes

Hydraulic fracturing - known as fracking - involves pumping a fluid made of water mixed with chemicals at high pressure into a drilled well. The fluid creates fractures in the rock, making it possible to extract oil or gas trapped there. So fracking essentially causes minor earthquakes by design, as cracking the rock causes tremors.

But research shows fracking very rarely causes earthquakes people can actually feel. The US Geological Survey found the number of small earthquakes in the USA increased significantly as the fracking industry was developed there. But the vast majority of those earthquakes were "micro" earthquakes registering less than 1 on the  moment magnitude scale - a modern version of the better known Richter scale.

Shale gas exploration is simply not in the "premier league" of serious earthquake causes, says Professor Richard Davies, director of Durham University's Energy Research Institute. Its study of 198 locations showed fracking caused much smaller tremors than other mining processes. Davies has said most fracking induced earthquakes release less energy than someone  jumping off a ladder onto the floor.

Wastewater earthquakes

The Durham study caught the media's attention, with a  swathe of headlines declaring fracking was not a significant cause of earthquakes. But it is worth pointing out that fracking has been linked to some earthquakes that have been felt, if only in three places: one each in Lancashire, the USA, and Canada.

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IPCC authors discuss how science meets politics in the latest summary for policymakers

  • 03 Jul 2014, 19:30
  • Roz Pidcock

The science of climate change, as expressed through the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is pretty well-established.

Over the last quarter of a century, the organisation has refined its review of the scientific literature in a series of weighty reports. Producing these reports is a complex affair requiring a huge team of volunteers, a years-long drafting process, and securing the approval of governments worldwide.

So perhaps it's not surprising that the process sometimes gets criticised by some of those involved. This time around, some scientists complained after text about how countries should be categorised in terms of their greenhouse gas emissions got taken out of a summary.

A new issue of the journal Science, published today, features some different perspectives on what happened - and what it can teach us about where science and policy converge.

A summary for policymakers

When the IPCC releases a new report - which happens about every five or six years - it also puts together a summary of the most politically relevant conclusions. This is called the Summary for Policymakers, or SPM.

During a long and painstaking process in the week before the report's launch, every word of the SPM has to approved by all 195 governments under the United Nations banner.

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A major strategic threat: how the Ministry of Defence sees climate change

  • 02 Jul 2014, 14:55
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 UNHCR

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) Global Strategic Trends programme has issued an updated report on the threats and opportunities for world peace and security out to 2045.

Climate change is one of several megatrends considered by the report. And it's a big one - it will affect every region of the world through impacts like rising sea levels, drought and food shortages, the report finds.

But what are the most significant climate impacts expected by the MoD?

All-encompassing

First of all it's worth noting that climate change features heavily in the MoD's analysis. Almost every section of its report, from transport to energy to health, makes reference to climate change impacts.

People often talk about ' mainstreaming' climate change into all aspects of policy-making or decision-taking. It looks like the MoD has taken this to heart.

Perhaps because its impacts are so all-encompassing, climate change is mentioned more frequently, with 151 references, than growth (98), water (141), health (85), energy (147) or migration (34). We've made a Wordle of 25 of the most frequently used words in the report, excluding common ones such as "likely".

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 At 12.02.59

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Record renewable energy consumption dampens impact of cold weather on UK’s annual emissions

  • 02 Jul 2014, 11:10
  • Mat Hope

CC: Slbs

The UK's energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions both rose in 2012, according to  new figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The statistics show that record amounts of low carbon energy dampened the effect of increased consumption on emissions, but failed to cancel out the impact of a cold winter.

Data

Households and businesses consumed 1.2 per cent more energy in 2012 than in 2011, bucking a general trend for declining consumption since 2005 (as the chart below shows). Temperatures one degree celsius lower than a year before were largely responsible for the increase, the ONS says.

ONS Energy Consumption

More fossil fuels were burned to meet the demand, the statistics show. The dashed blue line on the chart below shows the amount energy generated from fossil fuels such as coal and gas. Note how it pretty much mirrors the line on the chart above.

ONS Energy Consumption By Source

Burning coal and gas for power or heat releases lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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Government defends its climate science communication, but sets out a new strategy to improve it anyway

  • 01 Jul 2014, 13:40
  • Ros Donald

Is the government doing a good enough job of communicating climate science? In a response to a critical report by MPs on Parliament's Science and Technology Committee, the government has defended the way it communicates climate change, but it has also set out how it plans to improve. 

In April, the committee told the government it must  up its game in communicating the science of climate change. Its  report   'Communicating climate science', followed months of evidence sessions with experts and government and media representatives. Now the government has  responded to the committee's recommendations.

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Scotland doesn’t have much shale gas, new estimates indicate

  • 30 Jun 2014, 14:31
  • Mat Hope

CC: J Macdonald

Scotland may have some hard to reach shale oil, but not much shale gas, according to new estimates.

A new  study by the British Geological Survey (BGS) released today suggests southern Scotland's Midland Valley may only have a fraction of the shale gas resources thought to be in northern England. The region between Glasgow and Edinburgh may have shale oil resources to rival those supposedly in England's south, however.

The report warns that it is "not yet possible" to ultimately know how much oil and gas Scotland's shale may produce.

How much is there?

BGS used mapping tools and data from existing oil and gas wells to predict the size of the resources. It gives three estimates of how much oil and gas there may be based on the model's results: low, central, and high.

BGS estimates there could be in the range of 49 to 135 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas locked in shale rock in Scotland's Midland Valley. It's central estimate is around 80 tcf - about six per cent of the resource thought to be in Lancashire's Bowland shale. The UK uses about three tcf of gas each year.

BGS Shale Gas Ranges

Source: Data from the British Geological Survey, graphs by Carbon Brief

While the survey finds there probably isn't much shale gas in Scotland, BGS estimates there could be as much as 11.2 billion barrels oil trapped in the same rock - about 30 per cent more than it recently estimated was in the  Weald Basin in the south of England.The UK uses 535 million barrels of oil each year. It has 3 billion barrels of oil that are currently known to be recoverable.

BGS Shale Oil Ranges

Source: Data from the British Geological Survey, graphs by Carbon Brief

BGS doesn't offer an estimate of how much oil or gas could eventually be extracted from the rock. Its estimates refer to the oil and gas "in-place" in the shale - the total amount that may be underground. That's  different from a 'reserve' estimate, which tells you how much you might eventually get out of the ground, and will be lower.

BGS emphasises that "some or all of [Midland Valley's oil and gas] might never be produced" in a press release accompanying today's report. That's partly because the region's geology could make it difficult for companies to drill exploratory wells. BGS says the Midland Valley shale rock has "thinner shale packages mixed in with volcanic rocks, faults and abandoned deep coal mine working which make it more complex and are likely to limit where wells can be drilled".

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