By Alister Doyle
LIMA (Reuters) - A rift is widening among the world's biggest environmental groups over a little-tested technology for burying carbon that might help cut the cost of fighting climate change.
A report by the U.N.'s panel of climate scientists last month dismayed some greens by showing that action to slow climate change could cost 138 percent more this century if governments do not use carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Many environmental groups have long denounced CCS - by which carbon could be extracted from the exhaust fumes of factories and power plants and then buried - as a distraction from a shift to clean energies such as solar or wind.
"There's no reason to go for CCS," Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace, which wants to phase out fossil fuels, said talks this month in Lima among 190 nations working on a U.N. climate deal due to be agreed in Paris in a year's time.
"It is a lifeline for fossil fuels, not a solution," he said.
Others favor investment in CCS as a stepping stone to a greener future, arguing that coal-fired power plants from the United States to China will simply not shut down overnight.
"You should not dump all your eggs in one basket. We don't think you can take any viable option off the table," said Jake Schmidt, a director of the U.S. National Resources Defense Council, which is more favorable to CCS.
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Frederic Hauge, head of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, which favors CCS, said greens should accept last month's findings by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and not "cherry pick" science.
"Greenpeace and others opposed to CCS aren’t taking global warming seriously,” he said. The IPCC projects that rising penalties on greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades will make CCS viable, despite current high costs.
The IPCC report indicates the world will have to cut net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the second half of the century to limit mounting risks of floods, heat waves and rising sea levels. Global emissions are now rising fast.
To get to zero, IPCC scenarios indicate the world may have to extract carbon from nature, for instance by using CCS at power plants burning wood, or more simply by planting forests that absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow.
The United Nations urged a re-think of CCS. "I do think we need to refresh our view on carbon capture use and storage," Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, told Reuters.
She said there were many legitimate concerns, including costs and risks of leaks from underground storage, but that the practice may be needed.
Canada's Saskatchewan Power [SSPOW.UL] opened the world's first commercial-scale CCS plant at a coal-fired power plant in October after a $1.2 billion retrofit.
Twenty-two industrial CCS projects are being built or operating way worldwide, according to the Global CCS Institute, whose members include governments and companies, far fewer than expected only a few years ago.
Companies such as Exxon Mobil say that all their fossil fuel reserves will be needed to meet future energy demand.
"CCS cannot be a get-out-of jail card for the fossil fuel industry,” said Samantha Smith of the WWF conservation group.
She said the WWF was not opposed to CCS in principle but did "oppose using precious time and money on a technology that may never deliver."
Figueres said CCS would not be much of a lifeline for coal and oil. "About three-quarters of fossil fuel reserves will have to stay safely under ground, even with CCS," she said.
"We just can't afford to burn them," she added, under a goal set by governments in 2010 to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times.
(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Leslie Adler)