• Question: where do we put all the carbon?

    Asked by Maya Cove to Aaron, Abbey, Keith, Natalie, Pete on 14 Nov 2015.
    • Photo: Peter Burgess

      Peter Burgess answered on 14 Nov 2015:

      Carbon exists in lots of places around the world. Stored in all living things, dissolved in the oceans, and buried in deposits of coal, oil, and gas.
      We need some carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to create the natural greenhouse effect, if there was no carbon dioxide at all in the atmosphere the average temperature around the Earth would be around -20C.
      The problem we have at present is that the carbon that has been locked away in coal, oil, and gas for millions of years are being released really quickly and overwhelming the Earth’s mechanisms for absorbing that carbon and keeping the amount of carbon dioxide emitted, and the amount absorbed roughly equal.
      The first, best, and probably cheapest answer to ‘where do we put all the carbon’ is to leave it in the ground in the first place. If we do this, we need to get our energy from other resources like renewable energy, and nuclear power.
      The second, and probably worst answer is ‘Who cares?’. We could just let it build up in the atmosphere and accept that the planet will get rapidly hotter with all the associated impacts on life on Earth.
      A third option which has been talked about a lot is to capture the carbon emissions from power stations, refineries and so on and inject it back into the Earth where it doesn’t threaten the atmosphere. While this will work in theory, it has been proving difficult to make it happen in practice. Running the carbon capture equipment on a power station lowers its efficiency so the electricity it produces is more expensive. There are also concerns about how safe the pipelines would be, and about how secure the storage reservoirs are – if the carbon dioxide leaks away at say 5% per year, you haven’t really captured and stored it.

    • Photo: Aaron Boardley

      Aaron Boardley answered on 16 Nov 2015:

      Pete’s answer is brilliant – there’s not much more I can add!

      The Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology he mentions is a really interesting area for engineers. Practically, we have to balance our options for reducing carbon emissions with things like speed and cost, so there is not a single ‘quick fix’ solution, unfortunately!

      The Royal Academy of Engineering recently published a report looking at how to meet the UK’s energy needs whilst being concerned with three factors: how can we ensure the UK’s electricity sources are reliable? How can we keep costs down? And how can we reduce carbon? If we managed to completely reduce our carbon emissions but our electricity bills all tripled, people would not be very happy!

      The recommendations they came up with were to increase funding to develop the CCS technology along with nuclear and wind, to strike the balance.

      The other thing to do, of course, is to use less energy – so turning off lights, insulating homes, and using energy-efficient products are all important, too.

    • Photo: Natalie Garrett

      Natalie Garrett answered on 20 Nov 2015:

      I think Peter covered this very well! On a personal level, you can help the CO2 emission situation by choosing eco-friendly products that aren’t so wasteful to produce, and cut down on un-needed trips in the car. Also, don’t forget to turn off your lights when you don’t need them to be on! Everyone can make a difference.