We are in the middle of an historic energy crisis. Recently, news headlines have been overwhelmed by commentaries on the price of energy across Europe resulting from the conflict raging in Ukraine. This has crowded out intelligent and critical discourse on addressing climate change and driving governments like Canada’s to make sweeping statements about the future of natural gas and hydrogen. Many of these new climate plans are predicated upon carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.
Carbon capture and storage is a series of technologies. Typically, CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from high concentration sources, such as smokestacks at industrial facilities (think oil refineries and concrete plants). Targeting these high concentration sources allows the removal of a considerable amount of the CO2 from industrial emissions totals. Once captured, this CO2 is transported (typically by pipeline) to a storage unit or facility, usually located deep in geological features where, in theory, they are kept underground long-term. Some projects use this pressurized CO2 to force more oil to the surface in a process known as ‘enhanced oil recovery.’ Some of the more promising technologies allow for the storage of CO2 in basalt, mineralizing it in the Earth’s crust. While some advocate for the ‘utilization’ of captured CO2, the effectiveness and scale of these concepts is anecdotal at best.
Counter arguments have consistently highlighted the disadvantages of CCS as a climate solution due to its weak cost-effectiveness. Others point to the fact that every dollar spent on CCS is a dollar not spent on a rapid transition towards renewable energy.
Unfortunately, many of these arguments lack nuance. While I have been vocal in my opposition to the subsidization and prolongation of polluting heavy industry through largely unproven (at least at scale) technologies like CCS, it is important to acknowledge that while the economic costs associated with CCS can be exceedingly high, so too were those for wind and solar only a few decades ago. While it is unlikely that any CCS technologies will ever be ‘cheap,’ it is almost certain their cost will decrease significantly over time.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that our global climate targets will be impossible to meet without some type of technology to capture emissions we have already vented into the atmosphere. This is most poignantly expressed by Dr. J.G. Shepherd in his ‘napkin diagram.’
Dr. Shepherd uses this diagram to illustrate the actions necessary to address climate change. First, mitigation and adaptation measures continue to be the most vital component. This means a complete and global energy transition, including the elimination of fossil fuels as an energy source. Using CCS to support fossil fuels only pushes us deeper into ‘carbon debt,’ increasing the scale of impact.
As a result of continued governmental support for conventional energy, it is no longer possible to mitigate and adapt to prevent all impacts or bypass significant human suffering, here and abroad. Therefore, Dr. Shepherd introduces ‘geoengineering.’ This is split between carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management (SRM)—both of which are beyond the scope of this critique.
Carbon dioxide removal focuses on capturing CO2 already in the atmosphere. This is an important solution because it is the only technology designed to address past emissions. While many have proposed a ‘natural’ equivalent of using trees to accomplish the same feat, increasing wildfires and other extreme weather events means that this strategy is decreasing in effectiveness, and may in fact have the opposite effect, ultimately adding millions of tons of additional carbon to the atmosphere.
The key here is that carbon dioxide removal technology, while nascent and unquestionably expensive, is absolutely necessary if we want any hope of a world of 1.5, or even two degrees of warming. Carbon dioxide removal captures atmospheric CO2 from past emissions; however, it does not have a unique method for storing or using the CO2. As a result, the technology pathways of storing carbon, which develop through existing CCS, will be necessary to facilitate the evolution into carbon dioxide removal. While we might dislike the corporate greenwashing implications, our societies must hold our collective noses and invest in both carbon capture and storage and carbon dioxide removal—and place hard limits on the future production and extraction of fossil fuels.
The simplest way to frame our collective investments in this area is to view them as waste treatment. One of the taxes that every homeowner pays on their property is for the treatment of their waste—whether it be garbage, compost, and recycling, or of sewage and wastewater. Our past carbon emissions are now a waste product that must be collected, treated, and reintegrated into the environment, or stored in a safe and affordable manner. The cost of this service is one we are now bound to pay, due to past inaction, corporate lobbying, and private sector greenwashing.
While I share many climate scientists and activists’ frustration at the lack of action, the failures of politicians, and the enduring power wielded by the conventional energy sector, I disagree that the implementation and success of these technologies is simply wishful thinking. It would take a miracle for these technologies to evolve cheaply, easily, or quickly. Addressing the climate crisis will take time and vast quantities of money. Quite simply, our prolonged delay in acting to reduce emissions means it is now impossible to meet our climate targets without carbon dioxide removal, and hence, carbon capture and storage.
Burgess Langshaw Power is a former policy analyst currently completing his PhD in Global Governance at the Balsillie School, University of Waterloo. His policy expertise includes climate interventions and energy technologies. Views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his school or employer.