For the period between now and 2030, the International Energy Agency predicts that energy demand will grow 1.7% annually. The also predict that 85% of the new demand will be met using fossil fuel generation: including a doubling of coal power output from 1,000 gigawatts to 2,200 gigawatts. Given the retirement of old plants, this is a net growth of 1,400 gigawatts of coal capacity. 1,200 of those gigawatts are likely to be conventional coal technologies, while the remaining 200 are expected to be Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants.
Since the Industrial Revolution got started in 1750, humanity has released about 150 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This has increased the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere from 280 parts per million to 380. Most scientists and economists agree that avoiding really dangerous climatic effects requires that emissions be stabilized between 450 and 550ppm. Last year, emissions were about 27.2 gigatonnes.
From the period when they are built until the time when they are slated for retirement, these new coal plants will emit 140 gigatonnes of carbon. One mechanism that has been emphasized for dealing with this is carbon capture and storage (CCS): whereby the carbon dioxide contained in the fossil fuels is re-buried once the energy in the fuels has been used.
According to Lynn Orr, director of the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford, using a quantity of infrastructure equal to that presently used to extract oil, we could sequester about 14% of humanity’s fossil fuel related emissions. That is about half the combined output from large factories and power stations – the kind of facilities where CCS is most likely to be used. According to an article in Nature, $80 billion dollars of investment per year would be sufficient to capture “several million tonnes of carbon per year.” Burying gigatonnes will presumably cost several orders of magnitude more.
If any meaningful CCS is to occur, those 1,400 gigawatts of new power stations must be built with at least the capability to be easily upgraded to use the technology. This is easier to do with IGCC plants than with conventional coal, though only four plants of the former sort have ever been built. Once power plants have the capability to employ CCS, it will be a matter of internalizing the social costs of carbon to the extent that it becomes more commercially appealing to sequester that to emit.