Carbon capture – still a pipe dream?

Danny Chivers weighs up the evidence on carbon-capture technologies and finds them wanting.

Not green, in fact: The Petra Nova CSS facility  (pictured above) captured carbon from a coal  plant in Texas, US... and used the CO2 to boost  production at the West Ranch oil field, via a  130-kilometre pipeline. REUTERS/TRISH BADGER
Not green, in fact: The Petra Nova CSS facility (pictured above) captured carbon from a coal plant in Texas, US... and used the CO2 to boost production at the West Ranch oil field, via a 130-kilometre pipeline. REUTERS/TRISH BADGER

As the world gears up for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year, the controversial set of techniques known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is firmly back on the agenda.

References to these ‘carbon removal’ or ‘negative-emissions technologies’ are popping up in the carbon-cutting action plans of governments such as the UK, as well as the European Commission and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

But a growing chorus of campaigners are pointing out that CCS doesn’t actually exist yet on a scale that can help us within our tight time frame. At best, they are a distraction; at worst, they are sucking resources away from real climate solutions and helping to prop up the fossil-fuel industry.

CCS technologies come in different guises. Carbon can be captured ‘at source’ from a power station, and shipped off to be stored. Or there’s ‘Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage’ (BECCS), which means burning wood or grass for energy, then capturing its carbon emissions (the theory goes that because trees and grasses absorb CO2 as they grow, this process transfers carbon from the air into storage).

CCS also features in the production of so-called ‘blue hydrogen’, where natural gas is split into hydrogen (for fuel) and CO2 (for storage). The most mythical silver bullet of them all is ‘Direct Air Capture and Storage’ (DACS): sucking CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

All these CCS technologies share the same major drawbacks. The first is scale and cost. Think about the size of the fossil-fuel industry. Now imagine building an entire parallel industry to take its emissions, transport them and bury them back where they came from.
The exorbitant cost of doing this contrasts sharply with the plunging price of wind and solar power.

The second is carbon balance. Once all the energy needed to build and run this new tech is taken into account, we don’t yet know if they’ll actually save any carbon overall. This is especially true for newer, experimental technologies such as BECCS and DACS.

The third is the risk of carbon leakage. Concentrated stored CO2 is highly toxic. To make a significant dent in global emissions, thousands of plants would need to be in operation, meaning some leaks somewhere would be almost inevitable with disastrous consequences for climate, local people and ecosystems.

These reasons help to explain why, as of 2020, only 26 power plants with CCS were in operation globally, despite the technology existing for over 20 years.

New evidence suggests that all the attention on CCS has been slowing progress on cutting carbon. In a 2019 report, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) found that the promise of CCS and other technofixes is ‘being used by major fossil-fuel producers to justify the continued production and use of oil, gas and coal for decades to come’. Polluting companies and governments are pushing these unproven technologies as ‘a way of avoiding or reducing the need for true systemic change’.

The good news is that the urgent shift we need is still looking feasible. The renewables sector has weathered the Covid-19 crisis better than most, including the beleaguered oil industry. In most parts of the world, setting up new solar or onshore wind generation is now cheaper than building new coal and gas-fired power stations; in some countries, building new solar now costs less than generating electricity at existing coal plants.

The scenarios presented by climate science body the IPCC show that we can hold global warming at 1.5 degrees without relying on the pipe dreams of CCS – if we transition rapidly away from fossil fuels and halve emissions within a decade. That way, we’ll only need ‘carbon capture’ methods that are already proven, and that benefit people and nature: restoring natural carbon sinks such as forests and grasslands and shifting to more regenerative agriculture that pulls carbon back into the soil.

Sources: Fuel to the Fire, CIEL, 2019; CCS report, Friends of the Earth Scotland & the Tyndall Centre, Jan 2021; IEA World Energy Outlook 2015-2020; REN21; IPCC Special Report on 1.5°, 2018; The Big Bad Fix, Biofuelwatch, Heinrich Böll Foundation & ETC Group, 2018.