Moving beyond denial on carbon capture

Most of the key players in the climate debate accept the need for carbon capture and storage. But there's no doubt the technology needs government and industry help to drive it forward.

It’s not hard to see why carbon capture and storage raises the hackles of tireless opponents of the excesses of the mining industry and ardent advocates of renewable energy. This is an industrial-scale technology which may give a new lease of life to ruthless adversaries, many of whom have been strident opponents of climate action. It is a technology that has been promoted by coal propagandists as “clean coal”, one of the greatest oxymorons of our time.

But it’s also a technology supported by those at the front line of climate change most desperate for the scale of comprehensive action needed if we are to avoid warming of 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees.

At the UN Climate Summit last month, the Alliance of Small Island States, whose members include Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Fiji and Nauru, called for faster, stronger action to accelerate CCS deployment – combined with rapid deployment of other technologies like renewables and energy efficiency.  This is not a technology beauty parade and these countries are not interested in unproductive arguments about which technology is better at reducing emissions. Their survival depends on keeping global climate change below 2 degrees, and they recognise that this requires much more investment in renewables, energy efficiency and CCS.

In their report Tackling the Challenge of Climate Change they warn:

“[D]eep decarbonization of the global energy system is likely to be more costly and perhaps less feasible without CCS as a viable carbon-mitigation option” [emphasis added].

Let’s unpack this briefly. This doesn’t just mean that CCS lowers the cost of the global transition to clean energy. It means that without CCS there is a very real risk that we cannot fully decarbonise our energy system in line with avoiding 2 degrees. In fact, without CCS we may also be unable to reach zero emissions in a whole range of important but high-emitting activities like production of iron and steel, cement, and chemicals.

That’s not all. Multiple analyses have found that most global emission reduction pathways to the 2 degrees goal turn negative before 2100. In other words, keeping climate change below 2 degrees is likely to require emissions to go below zero.  

This means we need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmospheric cycle permanently.

Currently the most plausible means of doing this is to use CCS with bio-energy, or bio-CCS. The production of biofuels draws down carbon from the atmosphere. Instead of letting it return to the atmosphere at the point of combustion, CCS is applied to sequester the carbon underground. As we explored in our Moving Below Zero research, this is not a simple solution and has many challenges which we need to discuss now. But analysis by the Potsdam Institute has found that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is not feasible without bio-CCS, while keeping warming to 2 degrees becomes more risky and significantly more expensive in the absence of this technology.

In this context, the development of CCS is important not to fossil fuel industries, not even to multiple sectors, but to all of us. This means the value of any individual CCS project should not be measured by the amount or cost per tonne of carbon it stores. As with any other emerging technology, every early example of CCS is another step forward along the path to full-scale commercialisation, and so the true value of a project lies in its contribution to this progress.

For this reason, to argue against CCS on the basis of its current costs and uses is to miss the point. Using CCS in enhanced oil recovery has issues. The technology advancement through ‘learning by doing’ and resulting cost reductions need to be weighed against the oil and its related emissions.

Given how policy and investment have transformed the economics of renewable energy over the last decade alone – not to mention how much further this transformation can go – we should expect no less from CCS, as long as government and industry play their parts in driving the technology forward.

Developments like Boundary Dam’s commercial-scale carbon capture join existing projects with demonstrated long-term storage such as Norway’s Sleipner project to show this technology is available. There is now no excuse for any coal-fired power station construction or upgrade not to incorporate CCS or any reason why gas-fired power shouldn’t also be on a regulatory fast track – as part of policies that force them to pay the full costs of their pollution impacts.  

This is not to say carbon capture and storage and related industries should get a free pass on scrutiny of their environmental or social impacts, or that we in any way take the foot off the accelerator for policies and investment in renewables, energy efficiency and other solutions. 

But it is to say, as do the small island states, that we should not be in denial of the importance of CCS among other technologies in tackling the challenge of climate change.  

MATTHEW WRIGHT: The 'clean coal' era has not begun, October 13

OLIVIA KEMBER: Global carbon capture begins – as Australia dithers, October 3

John Connor is chief executive of The Climate Institute.

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