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How can we decarbonise economic development?

Decarbonisation and the developing world

To accompany the Society’s briefing note ‘The Role of Geoscience in Decarbonisationfollowing this year’s Bryan Lovell Meeting, Mike Stephenson, Executive Chief Scientist at the British Geological Survey, has written a series of blogs unpacking some of the critical issues.

This blog considers the challenge of decarbonisation in the developing world that is poised to rely heavily on fossil fuels, particularly coal, to industrialise. It focuses on the importance of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to keeping within the goals of the Paris agreement. CCS requires geoscientific skills to understand and utilise the storage capacities of rocks, and the ability to match sources of emissions with the location of storage sites. But what is carbon capture and storage? Watch the video below to find out. 

Fuel: past and present

In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, many countries in northern Europe and North America used their natural reserves of fossil fuels to develop and industrialise. At this year’s Bryan Lovell Meeting of the Geological Society, the issue of as yet untapped fossil fuel reserves across the rest of the world in the 21st century took centre stage.

The same potential lies in the fossil fuel reserves of less economically developed countries around the world as there was before the industrial revolution of the 1800s in more economically developed countries. The question is; will developing countries use their available coal, gas and oil, or bypass these fossil reserves opting instead for renewables. If the former is true, then carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be essential to stay within the goals of the Paris agreement.

Map of countries with proven oil reserves – according to U.S EIA (2017) Author: Jo Di Graphics. (Reserves are resources which are economically feasible for extraction).

Global energy trends

Not surprisingly, the International Energy Agency (IEA)[1] predicts an increase in energy demand between now and 2040, with 30% of this coming from developing countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. The IEA’s ‘New Policies Scenario’[2] suggests a shift in coal demand from the developed to the developing world. Shearer et al. [3] suggested that coal plants under development in India in 2017 could be producing 435 GW of coal power by 2025, and (assuming an average lifetime of 40 years) these plants could be operating until 2065. According to the Economist magazine, between 2006 and 2016 Asia’s consumption of coal grew by 3.1% a year and South-East Asia was the only region in the world in which the share of power generated by coal actually grew in 2018[4]. These statistics suggest that fossil fuels could power a second ‘industrial revolution’ in the developing world.

What is the potential of renewables in developing countries?

According to reports by IRENA[5], the renewable potential in Africa is estimated at 300 million MW of solar photo-voltaic

Global horizontal irradiation (GHI) in sub-sarharan Africa (Copyright World Bank). GHI is a value is of particular interest to solar farms and includes direct normal irradiance and diffuse horizontal irradiance.

power and more than 250 million MW of wind. But, IRENA and the Africa Progress Panel[6] understand there are investment challenges to realising this potential. Meeting sub-Saharan Africa’s power needs is expected to cost US$40.8 billion a year, or 6.35% of Africa’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. The locations of wind and solar resources in Africa are not known in enough detail at the moment to stimulate private investment by companies hoping to select sites for projects[7]. Africa – and developing countries generally – lack big electricity grids and transmission lines to move large amounts of power to where it is needed.

Possibilities for carbon dioxide storage in the developing world

Systematic surveys of the carbon dioxide storage potential in developing countries have not been done. Surveys that have been completed suggest patchy storage potential. Approximately 150 Gt of storage space is thought to exist in offshore saline aquifers, unmineable coal seams and depleted oil and gas reservoirs of South Africa. However, appropriate storage sites are often far removed from the main CO2 sources[8].

The CO2 storage potential of India is estimated to be between 3.8 and 4.6 Gt, in deep saline aquifers and depleted oil and gas fields[9]. The ‘Bombay High’ field, offshore from the city of Mumbai could be the site of a cluster of CCS infrastructure, however the storage capacity of the field is only 600 million tonnes which is not sufficient to store long term, high volumes of injected CO2.

The geoscience knowledge and skills that support discovering, assessing and deploying CCS technologies could be critical for helping developing countries to decarbonise.

How can geoscientists support development of CCS and what work remains?

At the 2019 Bryan Lovell Meeting, global deployment of CCS was acknowledged as vital for decarbonisation. CCS may be one of the only tools that the world has to decarbonise whether renewables are widely utilised in the developing world or not. Geoscientists need to work internationally, developing concepts for pilot schemes, as well as working with governments on regulatory and licensing frameworks encouraging CCS, and carbon trading mechanisms.

Perhaps most of all, it is essential that the voice of geoscience is heard internationally, at the highest levels of decision making to achieve our goals set within the Paris agreement.


[1] International Energy Agency 2016. World Energy Outlook, 684pp

[2] International Energy Agency 2016. World Energy Outlook, 684pp

[3] Shearer, C. et al. 2017. Future CO2 emissions and electricity generation from proposed coal-fired power plants in India. Earth’s Future 5, 408–416

[4] Economist Aug 22nd 2019

[5] Miketa, A. and Saadi, N. 2015. Africa Power Sector: Planning and Prospects for Renewable Energy IRENA, 44pp

[6] Africa Progress Panel 2015. Power People Planet: seizing Africa’s Energy and Climate opportunities. 182pp

[7] Gies, E. 2016. Can wind and solar fuel Africa’s future? Nature 539, 20-22

[8] Council for Geoscience South Africa, 2010. Technical report on the geological storage of carbon dioxide in South Africa.

[9] Holloway et al. 2008. A Regional Assessment of the Potential for CO2 storage in the Indian Subcontinent. IEA GHG R&D Programme Report No. 2008/2, May 2008

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