At an event promoting carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS), an audience member who co-authored a section of the IPCC Synthesis challenged the assertion that carbon capture and sequestration is a necessary technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, he highlighted the tension between competing emissions reduction strategies.
While COP negotiators work on the final details of the Paris Agreement, industry and government are readying their proposed solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When you have a problem like global warming, there is no shortage of proposed solutions. Unfortunately, the solutions that get promoted don’t always make the best environmental sense.
A poster child for misplaced attention is carbon capture and sequestration. The case of CCS demonstrates the powerful influences of technology, economics, and politics in determining how the world will combat climate change. Governments and companies have invested billions of dollars into developing CCS technology and piloting CCS projects. For all of their economic investment, CCS technology has yet to demonstrate that it can provide significant GHG emissions reductions. CCS pilot projects have been operating since 1996 and during that time period, they have sequestered millions of tons of CO2. It sounds impressive until compared against annual global anthropogenic CO2 emissions which exceed 9,000 million metric tons.
In 2005, the IPCC published a report on CCS technology stating that it was a key potential technology for reducing emissions. The IPCC stated that there is no single solution to reducing emissions and that a suite of mitigation efforts is required. The IPCC put CCS on a list of energy options that included energy efficiency improvements, switching to lower carbon fuels, renewable energy sources, enhancement of biological sinks, and reduction of non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions. Each one of these options is distinctly different from CCS. In the last decade, each one of them has scaled up to produce significant emissions reductions.
Governments and industry have pushed CCS as the technology of the future for the last 20 years. CCS technology doesn’t have another 20 years to prove that it is a viable commercial-scale technology. If the economics worked, the technology would have already been rolled out across the globe. The only industries building CCS plants are doing so with the financial support of their governments. The largest CCS plant in the world was built with more than $1.2 B in government support. Without the support it would not have been built.
When the negotiators wrap up their duties next week, the work will start on achieving the agreed-upon emissions reductions. Industry and government will have their proposals. As the IPCC author demonstrated, not all proposals are equal or necessary.