Carbon Capture: Solution or Scam?

May 19, 2008 |

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) - a technology that would capture carbon emissions at centralized sources like coal plants and store them underground - has become a new fault line in the climate movement. On one hand, CCS is firmly opposed by a large segment of the youth movement, including Energy Action Coalition. A recent report by Greenpeace, "False Hope," concluded that "investment in CCS risks locking the world into an energy future that fails to save the climate." And in a recent letter to Congress, 43 nonprofits declared their opposition to public support for CCS:

"On behalf of our members and supporters we are writing to express our opposition to any policies that promote or provide taxpayer subsidies for carbon capture and storage... We strongly urge you to oppose any policies that provide mandates or taxpayer funded incentives for CCS."

On the other hand, a large number of climate experts including the IPCC have concluded that CCS is a critical tool for achieving emissions reduction targets. A literature review by the Clean Air Task Force found supporting analysis for CCS by environmental groups including the World Wildlife Fund and Friends of the Earth. NRDC has also been a large proponent. A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2007 concluded:

"Carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) is a critical technology to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. In a global CO2 emissions stabilisation scenario, CCS in power generation, industry and fuel transformation could account for 20% of CO2 savings... CCS along with other mitigation measures could significantly reduce the costs of stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations and increase the flexibility to achieve that goal."

What this argument isn't about: cost and urgency. Concerns about cost and urgency are not the cause for disagreement. Both camps recognize that CCS is an early-stage technology with significant costs for full-scale deployment, but this can be used as an argument both for and against supporting CCS. The primary concern raised by the Congressional letter opposing CCS was that CCS is too underdeveloped and expensive: "CCS cannot deliver in time. The best-case scenario is that the technology would be ready by 2030." The majority of groups promoting CCS agree, and as the IEA demonstrates, they see this as more reason to support its rapid development: "Accelerating investment in R&D and demonstration projects will be needed if CCS is to make a significant contribution."

What this argument is really about:

1. Energy Justice

Which is the greater injustice: entrenched global poverty and inequality, or mountaintop removal and its community impacts? How you answer this question may shape your opinion on CCS.

CCS raises important questions about justice. The environmental justice movement fervently opposes CCS because of the very real injustices of coal mining, mountaintop removal, and the associated impacts upon communities. Groups and communities battling the impacts of coal extraction are understandably skeptical, and often outright opposed, to any new technology that uses coal.

Mountain top removal

Coal mining can lay waste to ecosystems and communities. Here, the practice of mountain top removal coal mining has leveled this Appalachian mountain.

CCS is interpreted differently by those who focus on the injustices of global poverty and inequality. Jeffrey Sachs, for example, is a major supporter of CCS. This technology is seen as a potential way for developing countries to retain access to affordable electricity to lift their populations out of entrenched poverty. China, for example, has brought hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty with coal-powered development just in the last few decades.

China and the developing world's energy access per person is miniscule compared to the developed world. Is this just?

Hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants spend their lives in the field.

One of the greatest sources of passion and dedication among today's youth climate movement is its commitment to justice. "Clean and just energy future" - this has become our vision and rallying cry. But what is a just energy future? Which injustices are we addressing? How do we get there, and which of the many injustices do we tackle first? If you believe that global poverty is as great (or greater) of an injustice as mountaintop removal, are you justified in supporting CCS?

2. Energy Reality

Will China and the developing world continue to build coal plants? Will developing countries agree to shut down their existing coal plants? Can the United States achieve deep carbon emissions reductions (80% by 2050 or greater) solely with renewables and efficiency? Your answers to these questions may determine your view on CCS as well.

Opponents and proponents of CCS disagree on the world's energy reality and the scale of our energy challenges. Opponents argue that affordable alternative energy technologies already exist and are close to becoming massively scalable. According to Greenpeace's report, "False Hope":

"The world already has the solutions to the climate crisis... Many nations have recognised the potential of these true climate solutions and are pressing ahead with ambitious plans for energy revolutions within their borders. New Zealand plans to achieve carbon neutrality by midcentury..."

Will China construct wind mills instead of coal plants? (Credit: Greenpeace)

Proponents of CCS are more skeptical, pointing out that a comparison of New Zealand to China, India, Brazil or other rapidly developing nations is a bit of a red herring. They point to projections that China and the developing world will construct an overwhelming number of new coal plants in the coming decades. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that global coal consumption will double by 2030. China accounts for a staggering 61% of this increase. The EIA projects that China's total coal-related carbon emissions will grow by 232% between 2004 and 2030. Europe may also be following this trend - European countries were recently reported to be constructing 50 new coal plants.

A skeptical view of energy reality - or "realistic" as CCS proponents might say - may lead you to the conclusion that CCS is an imperfect but necessary technology. If developing countries continue to consume coal and construct new coal plants to build their economies and lift their populations out of poverty, CCS will be a critical technology to capture their emissions and avoid climate disaster. Coal mining and its impacts may be unacceptable, proponents would argue, but unless you can stop global coal development and shut down the world's existing plants, CCS investment and development is crucial.

The famous "wedge" approach by Socolow & Pacala proposed 15 wedges of global emissions reductions, three of which were achieved by CCS. Recent analysis incorporating new data on coal growth has shown that at least 18 wedges of reduction will be necessary. (Credit: SciAm 2006)

CCS plays a large role in emissions reduction scenarios (CCS reductions in red)

Indeed, from a global perspective, the scale of the energy challenge makes many skeptical that renewables and efficiency alone can power the economic development of nations home to billions of currently impoverished human beings.

But what about our situation in the United States? Do we need CCS here? What is its role in America's energy future as we strive to cut carbon emissions down to zero as quickly as possible? This question troubles youth activist, Breakthrough Generation Fellowship co-director and ItsGettingHotInHere editor, Jesse Jenkins. After working as a renewable energy advocate in the Pacific Northwest for the past two years and co-founding the Cascade Climate Network, Jesse wonders:

Regional projections right now show that even with renewable energy standards in place in three of four Northwest states (25% by 2025 in Oregon for example) and with some of the most aggressive energy efficiency programs in the nation, efficiency and renewables will only be enough to meet growing electricity demand over the next 20 years. To put it another way: ramping up renewables and efficiency as fast as our aggressive renewable energy and efficiency policies requires will only hold emissions steady at current levels. In order to cut emissions 15%, 30%, 80%, we'll need to do something to replace and close down existing coal-fired power plants serving the Pacific Northwest. The question then, is what will we replace them with?

Keeping LNG away means limiting the role of natural gas plants. Nukes are pretty much off the table in Oregon (banned in state by a statewide ballot measure!). We may be able to push renewables and efficiency farther, faster, but how far will it get us? What are we going to replace the Boardman coal plant with?...

We must grapple with these difficult questions as we consider the role of CCS technology both home and abroad and press onward toward a clean and just energy future.

3. Risk Assessment

Which is the greater risk: thousands of coal plants worldwide with no way to capture and store their emissions, or a potential for periodic carbon leakage from underground carbon storage sites? Once again, your assessment of risk may influence your position on CCS.

Opponents of CCS argue that the risk of carbon leakage is too great to allow its use. According to Greenpeace:

"Storing carbon underground is risky. Safe and permanent storage of CO2 cannot be guaranteed. Even very low leakage rates could undermine any climate mitigation efforts."

Their report also points to other public health and safety risks:

"Large-scale applications of CCS pose significant liability risks, including negative health effects and damage to ecosystems, groundwater contamination including pollution of drinking water, and increased greenhouse gas emissions resulting from leakage... CCS would not only worsen fuel security issues but intensify the major localised environmental problems..."

Proponents of CCS argue that the greater risk is a world with thousands of coal plants without a way to capture and store their emissions - a recipe for a complete collapse of our climate system. The best analysis, they argue, such as that performed by the IPCC, shows that geologic structures are capable of holding more carbon than total global emissions expected to be emitted throughout the entire the 21st century, at a 99 percent retention rate.

The dark gray areas represent "highly prospective sedimentary basins" for captured carbon deposits. Source: IPCC WGIII

Conclusion: You decide

Our collective decision on whether or not to make investments in CCS technology may have profound impacts on our generation and the future of the planet. The majority of the youth climate movement has been opposed to investments in CCS technology. Are you?


Having recently looks into this situation regarding coal it can be seen that politics, vested interests (lobbyists) and economics rather than CO2 cuts play the big part here. The world does not need more energy it just needs to have large scale efficiency programs. The free market economic system needs to do some things to a standard and not to the lowest cost such as house and office building. Cars and trucks need to be able to do 40 to 60 MPG like they do in Europe.

However there are technologies that when all intertwined across continents can resolve our enrgy issues. This technology can be deployed quickly and via high voltage DC lines that can span upto 3000 miles can deliver energy globally and remove the oil threat to world stability that is going to threaten over the next 30 years either climatically (tar sands etc) or geopolitically (US wants middle eastern oil). This technology is CSP or concentrated solar power. We have enough hot area of the world, enough wind, enough geothermal, enough wave, enough hydroelectric on a pan continental scale to fuel us all. Has any political body got the balls to suggest it. The one big plan is called DESERTEC and its idea is to use solar power from deserts to primarily do the work.

By pete best on 2008 05 24

I think that in both this discussion and in Peanuts for Clean Energy you are seeing the same issue. Groups like Greenpeace see global warming as their path to an unprecedented amount of control over economic growth and over people's lives to enforce the 'green' lifestyle they advocate. Greenpeace et al want to have this power and control where they live. This is why they focus almost entirely on Kyoto style emission controls in the developed world instead of on clean energy for the developing world. Any successful clean energy development actually works against this agenda.

Global warming becomes the public relations tool to get people to accept Greenpeace's existing agenda, not a problem that Greenpeace will forge a new agenda to solve.

Because of this I believe you will see that groups like Greenpeace will oppose any new energy technologies, like CCS, to the extent that they might become feasible. I'll argue that you are already seeing this with opposition to new wind farms and, in Northern California, in extensive litigation to shut down existing wind power plants.

By Robert on 2008 05 20