Could carbon capture and storage make an impact on climate change? Credit: Pink / Alamy

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd yesterday launched a government-funded initiative to coordinate and accelerate carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects worldwide.

"Our vision is to build an institute that will galvanise global efforts to demonstrate and deploy CCS technology," Rudd told the initial meeting of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI), based in Canberra, on 16 April. "This recognises the cold hard reality that coal will be the major source of power generation for many years to come."

Australia — the world's leading exporter of coal, and also a big user of the fossil fuel — will support the GCCSI with up to AU$100m (£48m) per year. The public-private partnership has so far been pledged support from around twenty governments, including the United States and China, and over forty industrial companies.

"It's a real bold step from Rudd. I think he got fed up with all the talking around this issue," says Nick Otter who has been brought in from the French engineering company Alstom to head the institute, and has previous experience negotiating with the European Commission on CCS.

Environmental lobby groups, such as Greenpeace, say it is impossible that CCS can be deployed in the scale required to contribute to reducing carbon emissions by 2050, and that Australia's support for the technology is intended to leave the country reliant on coal.

20-20 vision

In July 2008, leaders of the rich G8 nations agreed that 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects needed to be up and running by 2010, followed by broader deployment of the technology by 2020, for the technology to have any impact on reducing carbon emissions by 2050. Each demonstration project, which would likely be at least a 400 MW power plant burying a million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, would probably cost billions of dollars to finance and be led by private industry with public financial support. Yet, with less than a year before that deadline, no such projects are confirmed.

Nick Otter. Credit: Australian Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism

The GCCSI hopes to accelerate uptake of various proposed projects and smooth their progress, Otter explains. It will act as a central resource tracking all projects and identify gaps in the types of projects that have been agreed on. The institute will also coordinate and pool knowledge gained from small-scale CCS pilot projects and analyse sticking points which are preventing projects moving forward, Otter says. "I think it's going to be pretty tough to get 20 by 2020 though," he admits.

The GCCSI will also form alliances with other organizations including the Clinton Foundation, which is already helping to gather finance and partners for carbon capture and storage projects.

The GCCSI "is a tremendous contribution to CCS", says Jeff Chapman, of the UK's Carbon Capture and Storage Association. "But it's got to carve itself out a distinct role which is separate from the International Energy Agency (IEA)'s carbon capture programme and the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF) [a network run by the US Department of Energy]."

Otter says the three organizations will avoid overlap, with the GCCSI focusing specifically on large-scale demonstration deployment, while the others work more on technical analyses of the technology, and on the surrounding policy and regulation.

The GCCSI will spend its first few months assessing the state of mooted CCS projects around the world — financing for many of which has been derailed or put on hold following the global economic downturn. "We'll produce an analysis to feed into G8 discussions in Sardinia in July," says Otter. "I think Rudd sees this institute as a way to help him argue the case for CCS at the G8 meeting."