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Industrial Carbon Management: Crosscutting Scientific, Technical & Policy Implications

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Session Description: 

Overview & Relevance:

The long-term use of fossil energy without emissions of CO2 is an energy path that may substantially lower the economic cost of mitigating anthropogenic climate change. We call the required technologies Industrial Carbon Management (ICM)-defined as the linked processes of capturing the carbon content of fossil fuels while generating carbon-free energy products such as electricity and hydrogen and sequestering the resulting carbon dioxide. Although many of the component technologies are well known, the idea that ICM could play a central role in our energy future is a radical break with most recent thinking about energy system responses to the climate problem. ICM may transform the political economy of abatement policy. By lowering the cost of emissions mitigation ICM may enable stabilization of atmospheric concentrations at acceptable cost. By weakening the link between fossil energy and atmospheric CO2 emissions, ICM makes it feasible to consider a fossil-based global economy through the next century. By reducing the severity of the threat that emission reduction poses to fossil industries and fossil-rich nations, ICM may ease current deadlocks in both domestic and international abatement policy.

Despite its promise, the implications of ICM for climate policy have not been seriously assessed. And, technical developments in ICM are now outpacing assessment of its implications for the economics and politics of climate change. This workshop focused on key policy questions about the technical feasibility of ICM, its implications for the evolution of global energy systems and the factors that may determine its public acceptance.

In July 2000 we convened a workshop on industrial carbon management (ICM) under the auspices of the Aspen Global Change Institute. We were motivated by concern that despite growing understanding of the technologies for using fossil fuels with minimal emissions of CO2, and despite the central role that these technologies might well play in the reduction of CO2 emissions over the next half century, they are little understood beyond the group of technologists who are developing them. We were worried that growing public concern about climate change, continued inaction on CO2 mitigation, and growing technical knowledge of ICM pose serious risks in the absence of adequate assessment of the implications of ICM for energy systems, regulation, and climate policy. Among these concerns, is the risk that ICM will be seriously assessed only in an atmosphere of crisis, as it is suddenly raised as an alternative to better-known means of CO2 abatement. Such a situation might well result in a policy "train wreck" involving costly choices, cumbersome regulations, and inadequate public participation.

Our principal goal was therefore to forge links between the diverse interest groups who must come to share a common basic understanding of the technology if assessment of ICM is to avoid the pitfalls described above. There is an obvious need for shared understanding between technologists, industry, and environmental NGOs (we hope for shared understanding, not necessarily agreement about outcomes). Equally important is the need for shared understanding between the technologists who understand ICM and the broader community that will be needed to successfully manage it, including environmental regulators, experts on climate policy and politics, and energy economists.

Assessment of Separation Technology

A diverse and expanding array of technologies now exists for capturing carbon while producing carbon free secondary energy carriers such as electricity or hydrogen. Our objective was to summarize what is currently known about separation technologies and to critically examine the potential of specific technological advances to lower capital costs and improve process efficiencies. We aimed for a constructive debate between those who hold optimistic and pessimistic views of these technologies. We asked both what could be built today and what is plausible in the near future. Explicit attention was paid to estimating costs, and to analyzing how these cost estimates may be improved. Finally, we asked about the health, safety, and environmental risks that may be posed by these technologies.

Carbon Management in the Energy System

Here we asked: What implications do ICM technologies hold for the evolution of our energy systems? Most assessment of ICM technology has focused on the electric sector; yet, as a means to mitigate CO2 emissions, the potential advantage of ICM over non-fossil energy sources (other than biomass) is potentially larger in other sectors due the intrinsic advantages of thermochemical over electrochemical production of hydrogen.

Analyzing the possible diffusion of ICM technologies beyond the electric sector raises hard questions about the structure of future energy systems, and about the path-dependency of technological evolution. There is good reason to believe that ICM technology will display strong economies of scale. Thus, for example, would the rapid growth of small-scale distributed generation work to undermine the possible market penetration of ICM? More generally, how will the structure of energy distribution systems—particularly gas and electricity—affect the competition between various low carbon emission technologies? What opportunities exist for early entry of ICM technologies? What roles should governments play, and not play, in developing and demonstrating such technologies? What are the likely impacts of ICM technology on carbon management policy and accounting mechanisms?

Sequestration of Captured CO2: Science, Technology and Public Policy

Current and proposed technologies to sequester CO2 pose great uncertainties. While cost and performance are not yet well known, perhaps more critically, risks and likely public perception and acceptance of strategies are almost completely unexplored. What research and demonstration is needed to assess the likely performance of sequestration strategies? What knowledge will be required in order to perform robust risk analysis? What role should governments and other parties play in assessing and assuring the safety of geophysical repositories? How can we foster reasoned and informed public discourse? What lessons can be drawn from poor handling of earlier problems such as toxic substances and nuclear waste? Will geological sequestration be framed in public discourse as environmental control or as geoengineering? This workshop aimed to develop a systematic list of the questions that must be addressed, and began to identify research, demonstration and assessment activities that must be undertaken to produce answers.

Disciplines & Participants:

The 32 participants included representatives from the fossil energy industries, the U.S. government, U.S. national laboratories, and environmental NGOs, along with academics whose research focuses on climate policy, energy technology and policy, risk assessment, and others whose focus is on the technology of ICM itself.

Workshop Topic (s): 
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Climate Variability and Change (including Climate Modeling)
  • Human Contributions & Responses