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Capturing carbon, a wishful climate solution?

The only fired-coal carbon capture facility, the Petra Nova project, in rural Texas. The site shut down after only three and a half years when oil prices plummeted in 2020. (Credit: Keystone/Eric Kayne/Invision for NRG/AP Images)

Carbon capture technologies are at the source of a polarising debate between those who see it as indispensable  to reach net zero emissions and those who view it as an excuse to keep the fossil fuel sector running.

Over 500 rights organisations wrote to policymakers in the US and Canada on Monday urging them to scrap carbon capture and storage as a solution to climate change.  They argue that these technologies are a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry and that their deployment will mainly hurt disadvantaged communities.

“We call on policymakers to recognise that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not a climate solution. It is a dangerous distraction driven by the same big polluters who created the climate emergency,” the letter published in two American newspapers stated.

What we’re talking about. Carbon capture and storage, known as CCS, is the process of trapping carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and other industrial processes that would otherwise be released into the air. That CO2 is then injected deep underground for long-term storage or recycled to produce other products such as plastics, concrete or biofuels, in a process called carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS).

Read also: Decarbonisation technologies also address other environmental problems

Burning fossil fuels – namely coal, oil and natural gas – makes up the overwhelming majority of human-induced carbon emissions, which are causing the globe to heat up. If not stopped, it could lead us to surpassing the catastrophic limit of 1.5ºC compared to pre-industrial levels.

What’s the best diet? While most agree that transitioning to renewable energies sources such as solar and wind is the only way out of this mess, the rate at which this radical change is going to happen is still uncertain.

“If we get our global act together and move our societies, our economies, our energy, production, transportation and agricultural systems toward net zero at the pace required, there will be no need to provide political or economic support to CCS,” Nikki Reisch, director of climate and energy at the Center of International Environmental Law (CIEL), which signed the open letter, told Geneva Solutions.

Renewables have got a major jump-start in recent years, but around 80 per cent of global energy still comes from fossil fuels. Plus, a great deal of emissions coming from other sectors that are extremely difficult to decarbonise, such as cement and steel, are being targeted for CCS.

Proponents of CCS argue that it is a less costly path. The UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has endorsed CCUS as a key way to reach carbon neutrality and has called on governments of the region to scale-up these technologies that are still too expensive and have yet to be deployed seriously.

"The atmosphere doesn't care where the energy comes from, it just cares about CO2. It's easier to carry on doing something that looks a bit like what we're doing now, rather than [something] totally different,” said Professor Jon Gibbins, director of the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Research Centre at the University of Sheffield and part of UNECE’s group of experts on cleaner electricity systems, speaking to Geneva Solutions.

“CCS needs to be developed as fast as it can be, starting now, to get from its current tens of millions of tons of CO2 abatement to hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 abatement in the early 2030s,” he added.

A bump on the road. According to the IPCC, deploying CCS technologies could help reduce the costs of climate mitigation by allowing us to keep producing energy with the infrastructure already in place, but it could also become a speed bump for the greener energy transition.

“CCS is taking up a lot of air in climate policy debates and a lot of resources in climate action budgets — to the detriment of proven solutions to the climate emergency, such as replacing fossil fuels with renewables,” Reisch noted.

Opponents say that CCS is only an excuse to keep the fossil-fuel industry, one of its main supporters, in business. Currently, 80 per cent of CCS is used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), meaning that the trapped carbon is then reinjected into the oil wells to boost oil recovery. This essentially cancels out any carbon capture since more oil ends up being pumped and emitting more.

Gibbins dismisses this argument, saying that this is because CCS is still not being used to decarbonise. In a net-zero world, companies using CCS to boost their production will still need to account for their emissions some other way, for example by capturing the carbon directly from the air, he noted, adding that the carbon can be stored in other places other than oil reservoirs.

Nature’s not so reliable carbon sinks. Another key to the climate puzzle is ecosystems such as forests and wetlands, which sequester carbon naturally. Scaling up reforestation and improving land management can help mitigate carbon emissions.

But the accelerated rate of climate change and human activity means that many of these ecosystems are already threatened. Scientists recently found that the Amazon forest is emitting more CO2 than it is capable of absorbing, resulting in billions of tonnes of emissions. Most of them come from fires but a handful are due to the hot temperatures.

All these factors make these ecosystems unreliable carbon sinks, according to Gibbins. “How do you guarantee that you're going to keep a forest in place for 10,000 years?” he said. By contrast, carbon stored underground is supposed to remain there for tens of thousands of years.

“The problem of ecosystem permanence is a social and political one – a human problem – more than a biological one. If we choose to continue deforestation on human timescales then that will be the problem, not that the ecosystems themselves won’t hold up,” Reisch said, while also pointing out that “there is no guarantee that underground sequestration of CO2 through CCS is safe or permanent”.

Weighing the risks. Aside from the mathematical debate of how to subtract and add up emissions, the continuation of a polluting industry such as fossil fuels has other adjacent issues.

Fossil fuels are not only a health hazard because of their emissions. They also release other tiny toxic particles that penetrate into the lungs of people and can aggravate respiratory and heart problems. Over 8.7 million people die every year due to air pollution from fossil fuels, according to new research. That’s one in five deaths worldwide.

At the same time, climate change is already wreaking havoc. More frequent and severe extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and extreme hot or cold temperatures are costing the lives of millions of people every year. Mounting temperatures are causing glaciers to retreat and ecosystems to become altered at an incredibly fast rate, threatening the livelihoods of people around the globe.

The uphill battle of reaching net zero by 2050 and avoiding the climate point of no return will require all available solutions, Gibbins observed.

But CCS also comes with risks of its own. A wide deployment would require huge infrastructure and pipelines to be built across populated areas, posing additional environmental, health and safety risks.

“CO2 pipelines can explode, with deadly consequences for surrounding populations. Building out CO2 pipeline networks on the scale proponents are advocating is not only uneconomic and unrealistic, it’s also irresponsible from a public health and environmental justice perspective,” Reisch said.

By contrast, Gibbins argues that CCS will have to follow safety and environmental standards like any other technology. “Every house in a lot of areas has flammable gas flowing in pipes through the walls and we go through a lot of trouble to make sure that what we do meet pretty good safety and environmental standards. CCS will have to do the same,” he added.

Plus, retrofitting old power plants with these new technologies would force them to be revamped to meet safety standards.

For Reisch, there is no room for debate; if CCS prevents the transition towards a fossil fuel-free world, it is fundamentally at odds with environmental justice. “As long as CCS is being used as a distraction for polluters to keep polluting, there is no room for a nuanced discussion about how to do CCS ‘right’,” she said.