COP28 is now in the history books, another year gone by (the hottest on record), and what appears to be another missed opportunity to face the monster head-on. Instead, we are left with the hollow promise of techno-fixes and false climate solutions.
In this backdrop of innuendo, conflicts of interest, and less-than-transparent motives, the latest go-to solution touted by Big Oil will take the stage at COP28: carbon capture and storage (CCS).
While the technology can potentially contribute to reduced emissions, it has yet to be proven at scale. Both face challenges that, unless met, could make matters worse. Nonetheless, CCS serves the fossil fuel industry’s mission, projecting itself at the cutting edge of climate solutions.
“Unabated” Emissions and CCS Sleight of Hand
Over the past few decades, attempts at making carbon capture and storage work at scale have produced questionable results. Despite progress, carbon capture and storage (CCS) remains expensive, inefficient, and far from scalable. Thus far, it is more of a boondoggle than a boon.
In a nutshell, CCS technology “captures” carbon emissions from power generation and industrial processes before they enter the atmosphere. The carbon is then sequestered underground or used in industry—most notably the fossil fuel industry for “enhanced oil recovery,” making the whole effort somewhat moot. It is essentially a scheme to capture carbon at the stack for use later in extracting more fossil fuels.
Nonetheless, at COP28 and elsewhere, CCS is the cornerstone behind the phrase “unabated emissions” we now hear about. “Unabated” shifts the solution from not burning fossil fuels to their “abatement” once burned. It isn’t about fossil fuels at all if we accept Big Oil’s narrative. The problem, they say, is emissions—circular logic writ large.
Through nearly 30 years of COP climate conferences, Big Oil has successfully prevented two words from ever appearing in draft treaties: fossil fuels. They are opting instead to focus on emissions rather than their primary source.
When so many delegates, ministers, journalists, activists, and lobbyists gathered from all corners of the globe fail to wrangle the elephant in the room by refusing to call out its name, the process is doomed to failure. We run headlong into the semantics that have dogged the UN climate conferences for a generation and climate action in general.
Delegates at COP28 finally agreed to mention the previously unmentionable with the hard-fought call for countries to begin transitioning “away from fossil fuels.” For many in the fossil fuel industry, that means employing carbon capture and storage. But the fundamental challenges remain after decades of promoting CCS as a solution to climate change.
Let’s recap and quickly run through why CCS is, at best, a minimal climate solution and most likely little more a smoke screen for Big Oil to double down on business-as-usual than a viable climate solution.
The Problems with Carbon Capture and Storage
CCS technology is expensive, whether accounted for as a capital expense or operational cost. Capturing CO2 requires significant energy, which can add up to 40% more energy for a power plant with CCS than without it. This “energy penalty” makes CCS less economically attractive than other low-carbon energy forms.
The efficiency of CCS varies, but in any case, it does not capture 100% of emitted CO2. The best systems can capture up to 90% of CO2 emissions, but this still releases significant atmospheric carbon into the atmosphere—even in the best circumstances.
Moreover, the process consumes energy, which can lead to indirect emissions unless the energy is from renewable sources. CCS can quickly become a game of emissions whack-a-mole.
Perception as a False Solution
Some critics—including us—argue that CCS provides a false sense of security, allowing the continued use of fossil fuels under the misguided premise that their emissions can be mitigated (or “abated”). We join others who argue that reliance on CCS could delay the transition to renewable energy sources by providing a “license to pollute” for industries resistant to change.
Fossil Fuel Industry Promotion
There are concerns that the fossil fuel industry promotes CCS to maintain the status quo of energy production. By investing in CCS, these companies can claim climate action while continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels. Critics (we among them) argue that such strategies can divert attention and resources away from more sustainable and long-term solutions like renewable energy.
The long-term storage of CO2 poses risks, including potential leakage back into the atmosphere or contamination of groundwater resources. Ensuring the integrity of storage sites over centuries is a significant challenge and requires ongoing monitoring and management.
We essentially leave future generations with a potential carbon time bomb.
A False Solution
If it was developed and deployed at scale decades ago, carbon capture and storage could be a potent part of the solution. But it wasn’t, and it isn’t. CCS is a false solution.