Interview Hoesung Lee, new Chairman IPCC: “There is enormous value in carbon capture and storage”

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H-LeeThe new chairman of the IPCC, Hoesung Lee, wants to interact more with the energy industry. “We are prepared to broaden our scope of collaboration”, he says, in an exclusive interview with World Energy Focus, the magazine of the World Energy Council produced by Energy Post. Lee says “industry, the energy sector in particular, needs to be part of the solution to climate change”. He sees “enormous value” in “large-scale” use of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Can the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that publishes the world famous Assessment Reports on which international climate policy is based, take a backseat, now that the nations of the world overwhelmingly agree that a major effort to combat climate change is needed?

“We know more than enough about the science of climate change to take action”, affirms Hoesung Lee, the man who is to lead the IPCC in what is likely to be a new phase.

Lee, , a professor in the economics of climate change, energy and sustainable development at Korea University in Seoul, was elected Chairman on 6 October after the resignation of the flamboyant and sometimes controversial Rajendra Pachauri, who headed the organisation for thirteen years. During this time the IPCC’s Assessment Reports became increasingly confident that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, which will attain catastrophic proportions if left unchecked.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres meets newly appointed Vice-chair of the IPCC Mr. Hoesung LEE (photo UNFCCC)

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres meets newly appointed Vice-chair of the IPCC Mr. Hoesung LEE (photo UNFCCC)

For the Korean economist, this implies that the focus of his organisation should change. It means “we need to increase our focus on solutions”, he says, in an interview with World Energy Focus. And that means: collaborate more with industry and the energy sector, including producers of oil, gas and coal. One of the solutions they should pursue, according to Lee, is carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Can the oil, gas and coal sectors be part of a solution to the climate problem?

“Industry in general, and the energy sector in particular, need to be part of the solution to climate change. For example, we need more investment in carbon capture and storage technology. As Working Group III of the Fifth Assessment pointed out, it will be very difficult to reach zero carbon emissions without it. And this is clearly an area where energy companies have a vested interest in ensuring that the technology is further developed and implemented.”

CCS would require huge investments which would not actually produce anything of concrete value unlike e.g. renewables. That’s why a lot of people don’t believe it will take off.

“With all due respect, I do not agree with your premise. There would be enormous value if CCS were able to prevent additional emissions. So far, CCS has not been applied at scale. But the right regulatory incentives could change that. For the large-scale future deployment of CCS, well-defined regulations concerning short- and long-term responsibilities for storage are needed, as are economic incentives.”

The degree to which fossil fuel reserves become stranded assets depends on the degree to which we can develop carbon capture and storage technologies

What are the main barriers to CCS in your view?

“Barriers to large-scale deployment of CCS technologies include concerns about the operational safety and long-term integrity of CO2 storage as well as transport risks. But a growing body of literature suggests that there are solutions to these concerns.”

Could CCS prevent existing fossil fuel reserves from becoming stranded assets?

“Yes, the degree to which they become stranded assets depends on the degree to which we can develop carbon capture and storage technologies. The better this technology becomes – the more carbon it can prevent from entering the atmosphere – the less these assets need to be kept in the ground, and vice versa.”

Another way to achieve net zero emissions is by planting new forests. But this would require huge land areas. Is this feasible?

“The degree to which we need to take action in any one specific area, including reforestation and the planting of new forests (afforestation), will depend on the degree to which we make progress in other areas. We need to pursue multiple options. There is no silver bullet. But reforestation and afforestation are compelling because they provide so many co-benefits by resorting entire ecosystems and indigenous economic models.”

Now that the IPCC’s Assessment Reports have found wide acceptance, do you see a new role for your organisation? In an interview with Nature, you have said you want to focus more on “solutions”.

“Robust scientific analysis will always be core to the IPCC’s mission. But we know more than enough about the science of climate change to take action. And that means we need to increase our focus on solutions.

COP21 should not be viewed as a binary situation, one in which we either enact a global agreement that will stabilise the climate or not

Working Groups II and III from the Fifth Assessment Report looked at options for adaptation and mitigation, respectively, and I think that work was particularly useful. But when it came time to announce these reports, much of the attention continued to focus on the perils, not the solutions. While we need to remain well informed about the dangers of unmitigated climate change, we need more attention on how to prevent them. That means an even more in-depth assessment of the solutions.”

Do you mean you would work together with industry more than in the past?

“Yes, it also means more interaction with industry to learn how they are approaching adaptation and mitigation. Remember, the IPCC has always assessed relevant literature produced by industry, so this would be nothing new. What will be new is the degree to which we interact with industry. We are prepared to broaden our scope of collaboration with other international organisations to the extent that such collaboration would strengthen scientific assessment of climate change and its solutions.”

The World Energy Council has called for some form of carbon pricing to be agreed on by policymakers. You yourself have said in an earlier interview that carbon pricing is “the most important work in climate change issues”. Yet carbon pricing is not mentioned in the draft agreement of COP21, the Paris Climate Summit. Do you think it should be included?

“Studies have shown that carbon pricing can be particularly effective, but it is not the only solution. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment provided a range of options for policymakers to choose from so that each country can devise its own path forward in a way that meets their needs and special circumstances. Although carbon pricing can be a very effective means for lowering carbon emissions, there is no single solution to climate change. The global community needs multiple options.

We already know that the commitments made by world governments to lower their greenhouse gas emissions will not be enough to limit the global average temperature increase to 2ºC

But a carbon price can be important because it will prompt producers to pursue processes and investments that will reduce carbon emissions, consumers to demand goods and services that will have less of a carbon footprint, and investors to fund projects that will have lower emissions. It is necessary that the carbon price should be designed to reflect the social cost of carbon emissions so that the carbon price is an efficient and effective instrument for mitigating climate change.”

What do you regard as the key institutional barriers to carbon pricing?

“The key barrier is political feasibility, i.e. the political willingness to adopt and implement carbon pricing in a manner that minimises uncertainty about the long-term commitment of capital required for low-carbon technology development and deployment.”

Do you think solar power could become the dominant source of energy in time just as oil and coal were once, so that we would have an Age of Solar?

“Half of all the new electricity generation capacity in 2012 came from renewable energy.  Solar power is becoming more efficient and affordable faster than almost anyone envisioned, and with the right policies it will continue to gather momentum.  I can’t predict whether solar will dominate all other renewable energy, but I think it’s safe to say it will become an increasingly important source of power for the entire globe.”

Do you believe in technological fixes for the climate problem? E.g. in geo-engineering?

Technology plays a critical role in many of the solutions required to turn back the tide of climate change.  After all, it is technology that has given rise to renewable energy, and new technology is critical to developing safer nuclear power and carbon capture and storage.  But clearly some technology is more feasible than others.  The Fifth Assessment Report found that limited evidence was available to assess solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal and their impact on the climate system.

What would you regard as a successful outcome for COP21?

“COP21 should not be viewed as a binary situation, one in which we either enact a global agreement that will stabilise the climate or not. I think it should be viewed as a success if world governments agree to take concrete and verifiable steps that will start to bend the carbon emissions curve lower. We already know that the commitments made by world governments to lower their greenhouse gas emissions will not be enough to limit the global average temperature increase to 2ºC. But if the COP sets the world on a path to lowered emissions, a path that leads to the possibility of even lower emissions so that we do reach that target, then I think it will be a success.”

Editor’s Note

World Energy Focus is a free monthly magazine published by the World Energy Council and produced by Energy Post. It features exclusive interviews with high-level policymakers and business executives as well as in-depth analyses of keyh energy trends and developments. You can register to get access here.

Comments

  1. says

    Regarding CCS, Lee says, “The better this technology becomes – the more carbon it can prevent from entering the atmosphere – the less these assets need to be kept in the ground, and vice versa.”

    No, no, please no. The point of CCS should not be so that we can extract and use more carbon based fuels. That is insanity.

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