CCS causes the problem it fails to solve
There are climate solutions that obtain their power from the fossil fuel economy. It can be bi-directional: while the solution requires energy from the problem, the problem also gets something in return. They are symbiotically connected. The solution cannot really solve, because it needs the problem to persist.
These are solutions powered by the problem, and they both fail to solve the problem while also making it worse. They are cures, coupled to the disease. Doctors selling cigarettes to patients, I guess. Firefighters with flamethrowers. Mechanics with mallets. I’m running low on metaphors. You get the gist.
If the solution relies on a continued worsening of the problem, it stops being a solution and becomes the problem.
A nice example of this would be the use of carbon offsets. Here, companies get to claim they’ve neutralised their greenhouse gas emissions because when they threw cash at some unrelated person elsewhere in the world, that person chose to emit less than they normally would.
The people doing the slightly-less-emitting get money, and the people emitting get to say they’ve solved the problem. But emissions reductions here are fuelled by worsening elsewhere: guilty consciences and bad PR need a balm. Carbon offsets are seen increasingly as an inherently self-defeating way to tackle emissions. This solution can’t function without making the problem worse. You can only ever take a step forwards if you take a step backwards.
What a grim, cursed way to design a solution to the biggest bloody problem we’ve ever faced.
Of all the climate solutions coupled closely to the fossil fuel problem, there’s truly nothing quite like CCS (carbon capture and storage).
This is where some machine or system seizes some (never all) of the carbon dioxide emissions of a greenhouse gas emitting process, at the point of usual release. This is different to carbon removal, where trees or fans suck in ambient atmosphere, and pull carbon from it, to be stored underground or sold for a use elsewhere.
It’s an important distinction: ‘point source’ CCS avoids a thin scraping of carbon off the top of some already-high-emitting process; it’s often physically attached to fossil fuel infrastructure.
CCS, and specifically its utility in providing a false cover of climate action to high-emissions activities, was the topic of my contribution to ‘The Climate Book‘, a compilation of short, sharp essays gathered by the famous young activist Greta Thunberg.
In that essay, I wrote:
“There is no single clearer manifestation of the hazard of tech solutionism than carbon capture and storage. It has become a beacon of false hope for high emitters terrified of fast, deep change”.
CCS is back, baby. After a late 2010s slump, the hype machine is spluttering and belching smoke, coming to life, buoyed by a major cash boost from the US climate bill, Canada’s government, and a push at the global climate meeting COP27 in Egypt from major polluters. The final text of the agreement out of that meeting, still in the works at the time of writing, is set to lean on CCS through coded language. ‘Oh yeah, we support fossil fuel phase out. Unabated fossil fuels, that is. No, that isn’t a smirk I’m hiding behind my hand. I’m dead serious, I promise’.
It’s a big new hype cycle, but extractive industries have used CCS for quite some time – it’s been used to separate carbon dioxide from methane gas since the early 20th century. The two primary use cases for CCS are directly tied with the fossil fuel industry; first in the processing of methane gas and second, in the power sector.
The latest report from the Global CCS Institute (GCCSI), shows the breakdown of existing point-source (with a smidgen of ambient air removal) carbon capture capacity around the world. For operational plants, only a small fraction does anything other than enabling the production or combustion of fossil fuels, and the majority of carbon captured gets used solely to push more oil out of nearly-depleted reservoirs. For planned projects, the majority are fossil-enabling CCS.
CCS offers a fantasy that speaks directly to the anxieties of everyone invested in the fossil fuel economy. Instead of having to deal with the horrific dual choice of either total transformation or total erasure, the greenhouse damage of their machines can simply be seized at the point of release and cooly popped into a nearby reservoir. No change, no existential dread, no questions asked. Tomorrow is just like today, and the day after, too. This is why the data shows most CCS is used, and will be used, to prolong fossil fuel infrastructure (rather than applications in industrial sectors, like cement production).
A recent report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) dug into CCS both in general terms, and analysing the performance of flagship projects. It found that the only times CCS does work, it’s part of the process of unlocking fossil gas from underground, worsening emissions. The carbon captured from that ends up being sold to extract even more fossil fuels, by being injected into depleted oil wells. The total emissions of these projects remain high. IEEFA leaves space open for industrial and waste management applications of CCS, but with many caveats.
CCS struggles to exist in the first place. Hundreds of proposed projects never even end up being built: “While many projects essential to commercializing the technology have been proposed, most (>80%) end in failure”, found one recent study. “As an industry, CCS systems sit firmly in the so-called valley of death”.
Often, these projects don’t actually end up capturing anywhere near as much as they’re touted to. I’ve collated examples from the IEEFA report below, but a key one is Chevron’s Gorgon project in Western Australia. A recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald outlined the scale of the problem:
“In the 12 months to June 2022 Chevron injected underground just 1.6 million tonnes of reservoir CO2 and vented to the atmosphere 3.4 million tonnes”
Gorgon is also one of the few instances where CCS has been regulated and introduced as a legislative requirement for a project. But that too has been a mess: as a ‘punishment’ for missing its targets, Chevron just has to buy a huge stack of cheap, shitty carbon offsets. Yes, that famous other climate problem posing as a solution. How drippingly poetic.
CCS does not do a good job of capturing and storage carbon. It struggles to exist, and when it does, it struggles to function. When it manages both, all it does is capture a tiny fraction of high-emitting process, supplying or burning fossil fuels, and the carbon it captures gets sent straight back to work worsening the climate crisis by jimmying the last dregs of oil from depleted reservoirs.
On top of all of this, it serves a rhetorical function; worsening the climate problem through the empty promise it provides.
The homeopathic remedy
Carbon captured by CCS is almost invisible, when you compare it to the global system of carbon dioxide release from the combustion of fossil fuels. Yet it has enormous corporate presence within the climate solutions space for high-emitters.
This is where the benefits from CCS really flow back to the fossil fuel industry. They benefit from announcing CCS projects, but they do not benefit from building and operating CCS projects. They just need a homeopathic tincture, a demure little eye-dropper – a miniscule, dilute ‘lil globule of CCS mentioned in marketing, tweets, net zero plans and shareholder presentations. Never enough to actually work.
As a nice example, back in 2006, Chief Executive of the “Australian Coal Association” (who are now the Minerals Council) said:
“There is no reason why by 2020 we can’t be putting a quarter of our emissions from coal and gas back into the ground, and no reason why by 2030 it wouldn’t be about half”
In 2020, the proportion of total emissions ‘put back into the ground’ was, by my reckoning, somewhere between 0.01% and 0.2%. This is being very generous with the math.
This chart, below, is the single most telling about CCS. It’s from the GCCSI’s latest report, and it shows that in the early 2010s, there was a huge flurry of new development, and that all translated into a sad trombone noise of barely-any-actual-new-functioning-things, over the past decade.
Is the recent flurry of new projects, from 2019 onwards, likely to actually translate into major new strides in CCS catching and seizing carbon at the point of combustion? Functionally, CCS hasn’t changed much from the past few decades – not in technological or cultural terms. The reasons for its struggles to exist have not changed.
For these new projects, they are comprised mainly of CCS used to shave a sliver of emissions off expanding fossil fuel extraction and combustion. A repeat of the fossil fuel expansionism that CCS enabled previously. There are some industrial and bioenergy projects here, but most are inherently linked to the fossil fuel industry.
There is no lack of cash. In addition to being recipients of massive government subsidies, fossil fuel companies are raking in massive conflict profits, as the price of fossil fuels sky-rockets due to war and disease. They could afford to make CCS a reality. But they won’t, because they don’t need to. CCS serves its function in getting fossil fuel infrastructure approved and built; once that’s done, you don’t need to bother.
In fact, many of the countries with the highest volumes of CCS in development are countries with a key combo: big expansion plans for fossil fuel extraction, paired with centrist governments that have a penchant for progressive branding and greenwashing. Australia, the UK, Canada and the US stand out as nice examples of this (Norway, which you’d think would qualify, doesn’t make it into the top ten by capacity, shown below; Norway is also an outlier in that it harbours CCS projects that actually seem to capture and store carbon).
CCS serves its function before it ever needs to actually exist. The promise of its future presence is the core service; not the seizure of carbon dioxide. Just a drop. That’s all you need.
This dynamic is at play for a large collection of planned fossil fuel projects. The major new climate legislation recently passed in the US also includes credits for carbon capture and storage – that’s already been explicitly linked to the progression of a new fossil-fuelled power station. In Australia, a ludicrous effort to grant carbon credits for the use of CCS has smoothed the approval process for a massive ‘carbon bomb’ gas extraction site. The policy was blatantly written by the fossil fuel company and copy-pasted into legislation.
The production of hydrogen (a clean-burning fuel that can be made either using fossil fuels or clean electricity) using coal or gas paired with CCS has served as a related and overlapping fantasy fulfilment pathway. The GCCSI produced a stunningly silly graphic for News Corp overlaying exaggerated total global capacity to make hydrogen with clean energy, compared to a nice, tiny square to make fossil hydrogen using CCS (calmingly named “blue hydrogen”). This is all part of fossil hydrogen serving precisely the same fantasy that CCS does in general. Elsewhere in Australia, the “Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain” (HESC) project heralds the production of hydrogen using just the worst, nastiest coal you can find, but promises to capture and store it using CCS.
Any corporation planning to build new fossil fuel infrastructure knows that they just need to throw in a little, meaningless scattering of CCS to deflect criticism and convince credulous decision makers, none of whom are willing to engage in the mathematics of climate impacts. Already, thanks to the context of Russian fossil supply being blocked, a massive and terrifying stack of new fossil gas projects – many times greater than the lost supply from Russian boycotts – is looming and threatening to chew through carbon budgets. At COP27, fossil fuel lobbyists are successfully making deals to worsen the problem.
We need more fossil-enabling CCS like we need a hole in the head.
The utterly terrifying space between where we’re going, and where we need to go
There is no future model of emissions that isn’t packed with a bunch of gut-wrenching gaps. We’ve already piled gigatonnes of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and we can only add in a few more before we’re sure the planet will heat up warmer than 1.5 degrees (relative to the temps before industrialisation). Reverse engineer that ‘few more’ amount into annual emissions and you get a chart that shows a straight line showing ‘business as usual’, and a bunch of steeper falls to limit the total amount of greenhouse gases such that the Earth doesn’t trap too much heat. Like this.
Below, I show the IEA’s various World Energy Outlook scenarios – namely, a projection of existing policies, what happens if climate pledges are turned into policies, and the 1.5c compatible scenario. The gaps between the two lines demonstrate two key challenges: how we translate climate pledges (like, ‘net zero targets’) into policies that cause real change, and how we set climate pledges so they’re at least vaguely sufficient.
To be clear about this: we’re on the grey line – the worst of these three trajectories. Based on ‘current policies’, we’ll see somewhere between just under 2 to more than 4 degrees of global overheating. Think about everything you’ve seen this year in the headlines, illustrating the impacts of 1.1C of warming. That gives you some idea of how much we do not want to see 2, or 3, or 4 or more.
In the IEA’s net zero scenario, carbon emissions reach zero in the year 2050. But as you can see below, if you break it down into components, there is still plenty of fossil fuel combustion in this scenario.
It is relying very heavily on CCS – much more so than carbon removal – to reach that zero. More than 6,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide is still created, in 2050, in the NZE, just over sixteen percent of today’s emissions. It’s just captured before entering the atmosphere.
The IEA almost holds it as a mark of pride that they’re significantly less reliant in their net zero vision on CCS and carbon removal than the IPCC’s much-maligned models. Arguably, that just shows the IPCC’s models were even worse in relying on questionable tech. But better than very bad can still bad.
There are in fact a range of scenarios that rely far less on CCS (and carbon removals), but achieve the goals of limiting warming. This recent study, for instance, examines scenarios like the IPCC’s ‘high renewables’, which relies only 560 megatonnes of CCS, compared to the IEA’s more than 6,000. “ccs creates a potential means to decouple fossil fuel use from co2 emissions, in theory allowing continued use of fossil fuels even as emissions decline”, they observe. They try to establish a ‘feasibility limit’ for the inclusion of CCS – the 2021 IEA report makes it in (though has the highest CCS reliance of the group), but this was published before the 2022 update.
The point remains applicable: wild, improbable volumes of CCS are present entirely to justify continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels. It is also possible to envisage future pathways that don’t need to lean on fantastical, fossil-fuel-prolonging machines to reach climate goals.
In my essay for ‘The Climate Book’, I compare development projects to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) assumptions for net zero, and find another huge gap. The chart below is an update, using the 2022 GCCSI report and the 2022 IEA ‘World Energy Outlook‘. I don’t even know what to call this gap. Whatever it is, it’s completely ridiculous – more so in the context that the IEA’s scenarios is ‘one of the good ones’.
That is a steep blank white space between the green mound and the purple line. The IEA isn’t ignorant of it. “If all of these projects proceed to operation, around 260 Mt CO2 would be captured in 2030. This represents a sixfold increase on current deployment yet only around 20% of what is required in the NZE Scenario”, they write in the 2022 world energy outlook.
Another way of visualising this is looking at how the outlook for CCS has changed each year. But the yearly rate at which new projects are being added into the pipeline is nowhere near enough growth to make it likely it’ll end up close to what’s modelled. And that is assuming it all gets built, and operates.
Exclude CCS as an option from an exercise like the IEA’s net zero vision, and you end up having to build even greater amounts of everything else, creating externalities elsewhere and putting even more faith in a bunch of other machines, each with their own flaws and risks.
But that is because these visions of the future solve the climate problem with narrow, technocratic bounds. You don’t have to nervously skip between ‘unlikely’ and ‘impracticable’ if you look at societal, cultural and systemic pathways, too – considering a wider range of options eases this stress.
Almost all of these models fail to consider feasible yet under-explored societal shifts, such as drawing focus away from economic growth and focusing on human wellbeing instead. These are changes that could be fought for, and in a patchy and uneven way, probably won. Reductions in demand for energy could occur while lifting the poorest out of poverty and shaving the ghastly excesses from the wealthy. We could figure out, collectively, how to live good lives without having to consume so much. The IPCC made some surprising explorations of this in their April ‘working group 3’ report (though they don’t feature much in the modelling exercises).
“Sufficiency policies are a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries”
IPCC WG3 SPM 2022, p. 41
They don’t have to entail immediate, fantastical headspace-shifts across human society overnight. Listen to the advocates of concepts like ‘degrowth’, and they tend to describe a bunch of extremely inoffensive and highly desirable policy pathways, particularly tempting in an era where fossil fuel prices are screwing us in pretty much every way imaginable.
I’ve often seen the exclusion of this thinking defended on the grounds of the improbability or the difficulty of widespread attitudinal and cultural change in society. It’s a fair concern, but when viewed in contrast to the ludicrous technological assumptions in mainstream climate modelling, hardly seems like a reason for omission from the big, official paintings of the spaghetti lines of the future.
If wish fulfilment is allowed in the massive, global project of examining the potential pathways of the future, why not wish for something that makes our lives better, instead of something that only enriches the people causing the problem, and comes with a massive array of associated side-effects and risks? Why not wish for things that we can fight for, and win?
We have already won some important battles. The long, hard slog of fighting for wind and solar subsidies, for instance. Historical emissions are not tracking the worst projections; nor are we down in the least-bad. We’re roughly in the middle of the space of what the past thought was possible, in 2021.
There’s hard evidence for the fact that it is possible to shift the needle, fill the gaps and create change. The April release of the IPCC’s working group three report buried something vital, deep in the depth of its thousands of pages: policies and actions taken so far resulted in emissions that were never released.
“There is robust evidence with a high level of agreement that mitigation policies have had a discernible impact on emissions. Several lines of evidence indicate that mitigation policies have led to avoided global emissions to date by several billion tonnes CO2 [equivalent] annually”
IPCC AR6 WG3 Chapter 14 Cross Chapter box 10 (14-43, line 39)
The effort to install climate policies and develop social and technological solutions over the past few decades means the ‘current pledges’ line – as grim as it is – has moved downwards from a far grimmer place in the early 2010s. This does not count as a real change in actual emissions, but as far as projections go, it’s movement in the right direction. Both what we can bank so far in terms of emissions avoided, and these shifts in future projections, come not from fossil-industry linked technologies, but from independent technological growth alongside social shifts like energy efficiency. None of it would have happened without the bloody and hard-fought battles to create and protect climate policies.
Wind and solar pulled off incredible technological growth in the 2010s, and show little signs of slowing down. The IEA assumes between double and quadruple that growth rate, in their scenarios. There are problems with that assumption too – particularly if wind and solar deployment remain heavily corporatised, and too often removed from the environmental and social needs of the places they’re built. Growth can’t be taken for granted: the ‘S-curve’ rises and falls with reckless abandon, if we lie back and feel too much like we’ve already won the fight.
But, importantly, it isn’t a near-impossible right-hand turn, and most importantly, wind and solar are not physically and rhetorically coupled to the fossil fuel industry. They’re not perfect gap-fillers. But my god, are they in another league compared to technologies like CCS (and the associated fossil hydrogen). They won because they don’t set about causing the problem they are designed to solve. That is the secret sauce.
Putting all of our eggs in the basket of climate solutions that are coupled symbiotically with the problem is a terrible idea. There is a reason they keep failing to bring about deep and real change in greenhouse gas emissions: they’re unchangeably locked to fossil fuel companies. When we’re choosing technologies, we should choose the ones that aren’t cursed in this way. And when we’re thinking about the future, we can’t fall prey to fossil-prolonging wish fulfilment. We have to open up our thinking to changing more fundamental features of human life, for the better.
Carbon offsets are allowed and encouraged to proliferate because the climate funding they enable comes at the cost of delayed mitigation elsewhere. And CCS is funded just enough for it to glimmer on the horizon, but never enough for it get truly close. A solution in a knotty, twisted relationship with the problem. Until we recognise it as such, we’ll be in serious and immediate danger. We have to wrench ourselves away from relying on machines that are destined to fail.
This is a great video on CCS by the Juice Media, if you feel shitty about just having read >3,000 words (sorry)
All the art here is generated using OpenAI’s DALL-E
A good article summarising the IEEFA report
Thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful assessment of CCS. Once through the initial sections framing the fallacy, I found the rest extremely insightful and spot on. It was well worth the time and quite inspiring.
Great work, enlightenment all the way! Thanks.