With carbon capture technologies increasingly touted by global leaders, we are placing undue faith in technology that cannot save us?
What are Carbon Capture Technologies?
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are approaches to reduce our carbon footprint via technological advances such as capturing the carbon emitted from fossil fuel power stations and storing it indefinitely or pumping large amounts of magnesium hydroxide into the ocean to absorb carbon, storing it in the ocean.
Technologies such as these are included in all the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scenarios that see us keeping global warming below 2°C. Worryingly though, none of these technologies have yet been proven to work at scale, and some that are included are entirely speculative, leading Prof. Kevin Anderson of University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre, to refer to them as 'a litany of technocratic fraud'.
The largest fossil fuel carbon capture and storage project so far is the Boundary Dam Coal Plant based in Saskatchewan, Canada. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of it, there’s a good reason: It simply hasn’t been successful. The project has cost approximately $1.5bn and, in the nine years it has been running, has never met the desired efficiency goals and has suffered regular breakdowns and failures. CCS costs 40% more than solar power and 125% more than wind power per kg of avoided CO2 emissions, and since much of the carbon captured is simply used for enhanced oil recovery, CCS seems to be little more than an expensive way of increasing oil production, with little or no tangible climate benefits.
Bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) appears equally unpromising. Simply put, BECCS means growing crops that capture carbon via photosynthesis, processing them into fuel, burning it for energy, then capturing and storing as much of the emissions as possible underground for centuries to millennia. The amount of land required for this in order for it to make a dent in global emissions, could be as much as three times the size of India. This would mean repurposing vast areas of agricultural land in the face of projected global food shortages due to climate change, or worse yet, replacing natural habitats with huge monocultures that are of little value to native biodiversity. In roughly three quarters of the globe, solar technology that already exists today, can produce as much as 100 times the energy that bioenergy is predicted to provide in the future.
Other technologies such as pumping magnesium hydroxide into the oceans, or geoengineering approaches such as stratospheric injection of reflective particles are even more speculative. There is limited understanding of what unintended consequences may result from approaches that seem to be little more than grasping at any straw that might allow us to avoid the obvious solution of reducing our carbon emissions.
Green Energy is Still the Best Option
Recent research has shown that the carbon footprint of fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, is more than ten times higher than many green alternatives. The research (published in leading academic journal Nature) assessed the lifecycle carbon footprint of a mix of renewables and fossil fuels, including manufacture, construction and fuel supply. The researchers also looked at methane leaks from fossil fuel energy production and transport of fuels. Importantly, they also considered changes in technology as efficiency increases over time.
The study revealed a stark difference between the carbon footprint of green energy, and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. Despite this, fossil fuels are still subsidised to the tune of $697.2 billion every year, even though we know that 60% of oil and gas and 90% of coal needs to stay in the ground simply for a 50% chance of avoiding warming above 2°c.
Perhaps the biggest risk is that CCS, BECCS and other carbon capture and negative emissions technologies may encourage the mentality that we can use them to avoid cutting our carbon footprint, or that we can continue to use fossil fuels alongside green energy, rather than replace them. We have already seen this in the UK, where, whilst wild-fires tore through Greece, more than 100 new fossil fuel extraction licences were announced, quite literally throwing fuel on the fire.
Ultimately, the solution to climate change remains the same as it always has – a massive decrease in global carbon emissions through decarbonisation. The clock is ticking, but few in power seem to be able to hear it.