The arguments against carbon capture and sequestration are legion and the list of reasons not to invest more resources in the technology just keeps getting longer. Here’s a new analysis from Canadian journalist Graham Thomson. Some of his figures– on global carbon emissions, for example — are less than accurate, and this isn’t peer-reviewed science, just a journalist’s compendium commissioned by the Munk Centre for International Studies University of Toronto. But even allowing for that, Thompson manages to hit the proverbial nail on the head:
The very promise of CCS, whether delivered or not, will extend the life of coal and other hydrocarbons, thus making more economies dependent on fossil fuels. Instead of buying us time to find alternate sources of clean energy, CCS is buying politicians’ time to avoid making tough, unpopular decisions. The allure of CCS threatens to divert resources from energy efficiency and delay more durable reforms. As one former nuclear expert put it: “CCS may be, politically, an easy way out of having to make more difficult and sustainable choices.”
That former nuclear expert is actually a trio, Daniel Spreng, Gregg Marland, Alvin M. Weinberg, writing two years ago in Energy Policy on the “Faustian Bargain” that CCS offers, and their paper deserves a lengthier excerpt.
The temptation that CCS offers is the extension of the fossil-fuel era by perhaps a few 100 years. It is a technology designed to limit emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere, but it extends the period during which CO2 is emitted. It is a double-edged sword. Research on CCS and talk about the promise of a technology that can fix the CO2 problem can easily delay more durable measures (Hawkins, 2003). CCS may be, politically, an easy way out of having to make more difficult and sustainable choices. It could divert resources from the search for increases in energy efficiency or investment in non-fossil energy sources. CCS could provide temporary relief, but it may also make the whole of humankind more dependent on fossil fuels, and thus make a change-over later more difficult. Mitigation technologies can be pursued in parallel, and Faust’s original bargain was to continue the striving. The short-term interest of the fossil-fuel industry is to accept the devil’s assistance and to extend the era of fossil fuels. This is not to imply that other approaches to confronting climate change are without cost or risk, it is to make clear that a Faustian Bargain comes with both commitments and an uncertain outcome.
Contrast this with Stephen Chu’s warm embrace of CCS. To be fair to Chu, as a member of the U.S. cabinet, he can’t afford to not to, given the extraordinary power that the fossil-fuel industry wields over American energy policy. The coal [power] industry, which supplies half the country’s electricity, simply isn’t going to shut their plants down unless forced to. CCS, if it actually worked, and was an economically viable option, would give coal another century of prominence. (Though probably not two or three centuries, as had previously been assumed.)
But Thomson, Spreng, Marland and Weinberg’s argument is persuasive. CCS diverts attention away from technologies that are far more likely to produce real reductions in carbon emissions at much lower costs.