Last week, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports sounded the apocalypse alarm, claiming the planet may have already passed a “point of no return” for global heating.
To stop the “self sustaining” melting of permafrost, its authors contend that humanity must now build 33,000 plants to suck carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air. The paper was rapidly rebuked by climate scientists, who claimed that the model it’s based on is overly simplistic.
What is not in dispute, however, is the fact that CO2 must be drawn out of the atmosphere to keep temperatures within manageable limits. Most climate change mitigation pathways that warn warming must be limited to 1.5C or 2C include some form of carbon dioxide removal, be it via a mass reforestation programme or a more futuristic scheme.
Technologies which might help us don’t exist on a large scale yet, but there are a number of organisations developing them today. Ironically, a lot of our would-be saviours are fossil fuel producers – the companies that put so much CO2 into the atmosphere to begin with.
In late October, a consortium of six energy firms – including Shell, BP and French oil giant Total – announced intentions to develop a huge carbon capture and storage (CCS) project off of England’s east coast. The initiative will see the companies siphon off the CO2 emissions from industrial facilities at Teesside and Humberside, and pipe them into a saline aquifer beneath the bed of the North Sea. Theoretically, they would stay locked away there forever, instead of being released into the atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse effect.
If successful, the consortium says it could eventually sequester almost half of the UK’s industrial emissions beneath the North Sea. The project is meant to be up and running by 2026. With only around 20 CCS facilities in operation around the world, it could constitute a major step forward for the technology. However, questions about the true environmental credentials of CCS remain.
Critics have long argued that attaching carbon-capturing infrastructure to fossil fuel plants, such as coal power stations, could keep mining firms in business when the world should just be transitioning to cleaner forms of energy. Then there’s the matter of powering the carbon capture equipment itself: previous CCS pilot schemes have burned natural gas to generate the power necessary to siphon CO2 from exhaust fumes.
“In actuality, there's very little reduction in carbon because of the inefficiency of the carbon capture equipment and failure to account for all the other carbon that's being emitted as the result of the energy used,” claims Mark Z Jacobson, a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, whose research has suggested CCS may cause more harm than good.
The now-defunct Petra Nova project in Texas, for instance, was meant to capture one third of the carbon from a coal unit at the W.A. Parish power plant. But analysis has shown that the facility missed its targets by 17 percent due to mechanical problems.
Proponents would say these are teething problems that would be ironed out as the tech matures. However, research from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has also claimed the gas turbine used to operate the CCS equipment emitted over 1 million tons of CO2 from 2017 until its closure this year. That’s to say nothing of the emissions associated with producing gas in the first place.
“Even if they were going to power the carbon capture with wind or solar, the question is: why not just use the wind or solar to replace coal plants?” asks Jacobson. “[With CCS], you have to buy equipment and provide energy for that equipment. If you take that money and buy a wind or solar farm to replace electricity from a coal plant, you eliminate mining, you eliminate air pollution and you eliminate CO2.”
Some scientists argue that CCS is the best option for reducing emissions from hard-to-decarbonise sectors, such as cement production and steelmaking. Given that the UK has all but eliminated coal from its electricity mix, it’s safe to assume that the North Sea project will target these trickier facilities. Putting aside debates around technical performance, there are still questions to be answered around whether fossil fuel companies should be the first to potentially profit from carbon removal.
According to the Financial Times, around $900 billion – about one-third of the value of big oil firms – would evaporate if governments attempted to adhere to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C temperature target. In light of this, oil companies will want to be seen as leading the charge for technologies like CCS, if only to keep investors calm.
Holly Jean Buck, an Assistant Professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University at Buffalo, believes the climate movement can, and should, articulate an alternative case for carbon capture.
“A progressive way to use this would be as part of a just transition for fossil fuel workers, but it's all very complex, because right now the entities best poised to do this – who have the capital and the expertise – are the fossil fuel companies,” Buck says. “So do we allow them to reconfigure themselves as carbon removal companies – or would that evade reparative and corrective justice?”
One idea is for governments to take control of carbon removal and treat it as a public service, like municipal waste or water treatment. Then skilled fossil fuel workers could be employed in capturing carbon, avoiding a protracted crisis of job losses and ensuring that the technology’s ultimate beneficiaries are citizens, not corporations. More radical demands would see companies with historical responsibility for CO2 emissions held financially liable for their removal.
“We're going to need carbon capture and storage,” Buck says. “We have choices about how it's used and who profits from it, and if we just reject it out of hand, then we lose our opportunity to shape those choices.”