Scientists have buried CO2 underground in Germany as part of a pilot project designed to put climate change on hold. Environmental groups, however, are worried about toxic leaks into the earth.
Underground CO2 storage is meant to be a temporary solution
The plan is to pump 60,000 tons of greenhouse gas into porous, salt water-filled rock at depths of more than 600 meters (2,000 feet) over the next two years, said Germany's national geo-science institute, the project's initiator.
The 20 million euro project, dubbed CO2SINK, was officially launched on Monday, June 30 in Ketzin near Potsdam, with the first injection of carbon dioxide below the surface of the earth. Carbon dioxide (CO2), which is emitted when fossil fuels are burned, is harmful to the environment and considered to be the leading cause of climate change.
"The main goal of the project is to develop and test ways of monitoring the stored CO2," Hilke Wuerdemann from the national geo-science institute told DW-WORLD.DE.
The test period is scheduled to last for two years
Project directors have said the carbon sinking process is not a long-term solution to climate change but transitional technology, designed to cut the damages and buy time for researchers to come up with a more permanent solution to climate change and emissions.
It is not yet clear how viable the method will be.
Eighteen partners from 9 European countries are involved in the project, which is jointly financed by the EU, the German government and private companies.
Cost a matter of perspective
The inauguration of CO2SINK coincided with an international CO2 conference in The Hague on Monday.
Peter Boot, the International Energy Agency's policy analysis director, said that global energy consumption was expected to rise 55 percent by 2030, with carbon-emitting fossil fuels making of 84 percent of that.
He strongly advocated implementing a separate, above-ground carbon capture and storage method (CCS) at power plants to contain emissions. While the capture method occurs on-site at the point of carbon emission, underground storage is the next, complementary step in the process.
The high cost of the technology has prevented the sector from putting it into operation thus far, though it is currently being tested at a Vattenfall power plant in the eastern German city of Cottbus.
Construction began on the project well over a year ago
"This … is a litmus test whether governments are serious on climate policy or not," said Boot, "because this costs money." He added that the initial steps will have to be subsidized by governments.
Wuerdemann, on the other hand, said it wasn't appropriate to quantify the project in monetary terms.
"'Expensive,' in my opinion, isn't a scientific term; I wouldn't use the word," she said. "You could also say it's cheap because it protects the climate."
Harming the earth -- or imitating it?
But price isn't the only worry that's been raised. Environmental organizations have expressed concerns about the ecological soundness of the underground process. In particular, Greenpeace has said it poses a risk of highly toxic leaks into the soil.
"No one knows exactly whether large amounts of CO2 can securely remain underground for long periods of time," said Greenpeace climate expert Gabriela von Goerne.
In response to the critique, Wuerdemann pointed out that underground storage is an idea that stemmed from the earth itself.
"We know that natural gas has been stored in the earth for millions of years, and we're trying to imitate that," she said.