According to a new report from MIT, based on a March 23, 2009 symposium at the university, governments and utilities around the world won’t be able to transition to a low-carbon economy until they answer the coal question. And the science suggests that society needs to answer that question with all due haste. “There is today no credible pathway towards stringent GHG stabilization targets without CO2 emissions reduction from existing coal power plants,” the report begins. With the high cost of carbon capture, and little real world evidence that CO2 can be safely stored below ground, it’s time to get serious and find pragmatic solutions.

Among the report’s key points:

  • CCS isn’t the only way to cut coal-fired emissions. Coal can be burned more efficiently (by up to 5%) at many plants, and biomass can handle some of the heavy lifting. Cutting emissions by five or 10% won’t save the planet, but it’s far better than business as usual.
  • Thus far, CCS has focused on capturing carbon, and sequestration has been given short shrift, with the exception of using CO2 to boost oil production. But this report cautions against putting too much faith in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) trials, as sequestration from power plants would need to be massive and foolproof. “Enhanced Oil Recovery projects provide some useful information about geological storage, if properly instrumented and monitored, but neither the EOR regulatory framework nor the potential for EOR is adequate for CO2 mitigation from coal fired generating units at a scale that will be material for climate change risk mitigation.”
  • Capturing carbon from existing coal plants is going to cost an arm and a leg. MIT figures that retrofitting CCS at existing plants will cost $50 to $70 a ton. China might be in a better position for CSS because they are building state-of-the-art supercritical coal-fired plants.
  • It’s time for governments to open the purse strings. In addition to the $15 billion already committed to CCS through public-private partnerships, the federal government will need to spend at least $1 billion annually to support carbon capture, and retrofitting existing plants. (Source: Wall Street Journal, CSR Wire, June 19, 2009).

    Contact: Professor Ernest Moniz, Cecil & Ida Green Prof Physics, MIT Energy Initiative, (617) 253-7515,,