A debate has been smouldering on about what role, if any, “Carbon Capture and Storage” (CCS) technologies should play in ecological transition.
CCS denotes chains of technology for capturing carbon from the chimneys of factories and power plants. The chimney is fitted with solvent filters, which much of the CO2 dissolves into — CCS’s coal industry proponents claim up to 90%. For storage, the solvent is then pumped to somewhere where it is heated up, forcing the CO2 out again, where it is stored, perhaps underground. A small amount may be used for fizzy drinks, in greenhouses for plants, and for making plastics.
CCS does not refer to carbon sequestration from the atmosphere as a whole: through afforestation, peat restoration, rewilding, and the like.
In November, as part of an extremely limited “ten point plan for a green industrial revolution”, Boris Johnson committed to an extra £200 million towards CCS, bringing it up to £1 billion total. This plan would aim to create four facilities by 2030.
Environmentalists have generally been sceptical about CCS. On 11 January, a report was published which was heavily critical of its role in UK government climate plans. It found that global operational CCS capacity is currently about 0.1% of annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The UK currently has no operational CCS, yet the UK CCC’s model for net zero by 2050 relies on the UK capacity reaching four times the current global total by that date. It rightly condemns the government for “placing reliance over the next decade on this technology that has a track record of over-promising and under-delivering.”
The picture gets worse. There are just 26 operational CCS plants globally. 81% of the carbon that they manage to capture is used for “Enhanced Oil Recovery” (EOR). EOR is an energy-intensive process which squeezes more crude oil from an oil field than would be otherwise possible, using high pressure CO2 and water. Planned deployment of CCS likewise remains dominated by EOR.
Like fracking, this process can poison water tables and soil. Its higher energy use than conventional extraction requires even more fossil fuels. And much of the liquid hydrocarbon is then, of course, burned, releasing yet more greenhouse gasses. The cycle of doom goes on.
One common criticism of CCS is the risk of leakage. Carbon dioxide can be stored underground beneath an impervious layer of rock, trapped in porous rock, perhaps dissolved in subterranean brine. Leaks can and will, to greater or lesser degrees, happen. This may then seem like kicking some of the problem down the road; or even worse, creating a time bomb for future generations.
In itself, that risk would not be a good reason to avoid CCS. Even if CO2 did leak, in the worst case scenario, no more carbon would end up released than was injected and, everything else being equal, would have ended up in the atmosphere anyway. It won’t all leak out, and leaks won’t happen simultaneously around the world. And releasing later is always likely to be better than releasing now.
Arguments such as this are used by proponents of CCS, such as those who, on 16 January, “dismissed” the report published earlier that week. These proponents did not, in fact, respond to the report’s claims and arguments.
The core problem is that everything else is not equal. CCS’s captured carbon is mostly used to suck more liquid carbon from the ground. That aside, it is a speculative technology which is primarily used by governments and corporations to justify continuing to emit carbon dioxide.
But if most environmentalists are correct that CCS is touted as a future technological solution to a current political failure, they also make a mirror mistake. They let current political failures make problems of possible future technological aids. An irrational political and economic order, where green technologies are used as a license to emit greenhouse gasses, is not inevitable. The CCS advocates might well be correct — in a different society.
A democratic and rational society, a workers’ government, taking power in the next few years, would surely throw resources into some CCS research and deployment. Not as an alternative to preventing carbon emissions in the first place. Rather, as one minor component to reduce the emissions while trying to “decarbonise” as fast as possible.
But for now we must declare inadequate any environmental programme in which it plays a major part.