Economist Debate Concludes “Climate-Control Policies Cannot Rely on Carbon Capture and Storage”

The votes are in.  The people have spoken.


Since online voting is the definitive way to settle key issues, it’s time to move on to climate solutions we can rely on….

More seriously, let’s review the case.  In my opening statement on the role carbon capture and storage will play in solving the climate crisis, I focused on the vast economic challenge.  In my rebuttal, I explored how “Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved.”

My closing statement looks at the solutions we need to embrace aggressively now so that CCS  even has a chance of being a contribution to avoiding catastrophic global warming:

Time has run out for delay.

Study after study after study makes clear that we must start dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions now if we are to avert multiple, simultaneous catastrophes that will threaten the health and food security of billions of people by mid-century, as I discuss here.

Barry Jones says “when the six projects currently under construction go live by 2015”, carbon capture and storage will avoid “some 33m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.” That will be one part in one thousand of global emissions. Great. Go for it I say.

He hopes for “20 demonstration projects by 2020” since “the idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s”. As dreams go, that is a good one.

But we need to get serious about “the daunting scale of the challenge,” as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:

“Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”

And that still assumes we are successful in the demonstration programmes, and at the same time address all the key safety and transparency issues I discussed in my rebuttal.

So, sure, pursue R&D and demonstration of CCS, and hope it can be 10% of the solution by 2050. But to repeat the key International Energy Agency finding from its recent “World Energy Outlook“:

“On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change … Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

We need to pursue aggressive deployment of the clean-energy technologies that are commercial now. These include wind, solar, biomass and other renewables as well as energy efficiency in buildings, industry, and vehicles, including electrification of as much transport as we can.

Back in May, a major study, California’s Energy Future—the View to 2050, was released by an independent state science and technology advisory panel. It found:

“California can achieve emissions roughly 60% below 1990 levels with technology we largely know about today if such technology is rapidly deployed at rates that are aggressive but feasible.”

These are the key strategies:

  1. Aggressive efficiency measures for buildings, industry and transport to dramatically reduce per-person energy demand.
  2. Aggressive electrification to avoid fossil-fuel use where technically feasible.
  3. Decarbonising electricity supply while doubling electricity production, and developing zero-emissions load-balancing approaches to manage load variability and minimise the impact of variable supply for renewables like wind and solar.
  4. Decarbonising the remaining required fuel supply where electrification is not feasible.

It is true that the 60% reduction is a target for rich countries like the United States that is typically associated with a target of 3°C warming, whereas to keep total warming near the safer level of 2°C you need to get the United States 80% below 1990 levels.

The good news is that California can achieve such deep emissions reductions without technology breakthroughs even though it has been pushing efficiency and low-carbon electricity aggressively since the 1970s. California is considerably more efficient in its use of energy than almost every other state in the country. For a long time now the CO2 intensity of its electricity (CO2/megawatt hour) has been nearly half that of the rest of the nation. So obviously the rest of the country—which is far more coal-intensive and inefficient—has considerably more low-hanging fruit for emissions reductions.

So there seems little doubt that the entire country could beat the 60% target without relying on CCS through 2050. That does not mean CCS could not potentially make a small, but meaningful, contribution post-2030. I hope it can.

But it is clear that climate-control policies do not need to rely on CCS; nor can we dawdle any further waiting for it. And until the technology has been demonstrated to be practical, affordable, safe and permanent in many different geologies, no one can say that we can rely on carbon capture and storage.

6 Responses to Economist Debate Concludes “Climate-Control Policies Cannot Rely on Carbon Capture and Storage”

  1. In the context of synthetic CCS, I think we should also keep in mind natural ecosystem CCS, which is proven, large, and ongoing. So I’d add an this item like this somewhere – even in the “energy” conversation:

    5. Aggressive preservation of existing carbon stores and ongoing sequestration capacity in natural ecosystems, including strict limitations on forest logging at all latitudes.

  2. John Tucker says:

    Jve had trouble understanding progress in places like California. Their electricity imports and out of state holdings should be included I feel. For sure they have made progress.

    In an aside: with smaller co generation projects associated with renewables CCS would seem less likely.

    Rather dismal news today :

    Exclusive: Shell strikes shale gas in China ( )

    No world yet on the size of the reserves, I have a feeling its a lot more than anticipated. It seems like it always is.

  3. cervantes says:

    Huntsman sells out on climate change. What I want to know is why? He isn’t going to be the nominee, he’s just throwing the planet and humanity under the bus so he can get a few more votes.

  4. John McCormick says:

    Joe, I (and we) seem to be repeatedly thanking you for providing insight, data, information and leadership. So, with regards to your contributions and opinions on the CS issue…another thank you.

  5. sault says:

    I agree with your assessment of CCS and I would argue that it is the same prudent assessment that can be made about “advanced” nuclear power. The LWRs of the 20th Century were such an expensive boondoggle that our electricity markets are still recovering. Thorium reactors are promising, but the thorium evangelists have not been anywhere NEAR forthcoming with the disadvantages and challenges LFTRs present. Some even think all the LFTR chatter is a smokescreen to preserve government support of the LWR industry. Color me a bit skeptical on this technology…

    As with your closing statement on CCS, LFTRs MIGHT be able to do some good in the 2030s or later, but this is TOO LATE. Let’s see how far we get with renewables and efficiency / demand management / sustainability awareness first and then if it isn’t enough, we’ll have LFTRs or CCS to fall back on. Finally, CCS locks us into all the other dirty aspects of coal consumption like open pit mines, blasted mountaintops and groundwater contamination. In addition, CCS INCREASES fuel consumption by at least 1/3 and maybe even more. It would be better just to abandon this 19th Century technology in the dustbin of history.

  6. J4zonian says:

    I see on another recent Climate Progress post a short discussion of the contributions local and low/no meat diets can make to cutting emissions (as well as many other pollutants and problems).

    Here is the solution to several problems at once. While CCS technology is unproven and unlikely to help, local organic permaculture, based largely on perennial plants, can. Integrated systems like the 3 Sisters (corn, beans and squash grown together to supply each others’ needs, a simple example) reduce need for fertilizers, pesticides, tilling, etc. and increase organic content (aka carbon) of soils, a much better answer to the problems raised than CCS and other piecemeal actions. It’s an answer to the questions about where food is produced and how, how to sequester large amounts of carbon, and what to do with your weekends after you sell your ATV.

    While it would still be possible, it seems it’s going to be difficult (and unlikely at this point) to avoid vast suffering with renewables alone. We’ve waited too long and still have too much resistance to the level of deployment we need. But local economies and individuals can pursue these alternative food strategies independently of national decisions dragged down by right wing politics. You could say planting even tiny yards and apartment balconies and windows with mini orchards of dwarf fruit trees could lead to the low-hanging fruit of a changed food production system.