Coal-fired power station smokestacks. Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel and the largest single contributor to climate change.
CCS aims to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power station
smokestacks and dump it underground. Although it's being described
as a "silver bullet" solution in combating the climate crisis, CCS
has yet to be used on any large-scale coal-fired power plant
anywhere in the world. And, as
'False Hope' reveals, there are huge unknowns regarding
feasibility, cost, environmental implications and liability which
have not been thought through.
The increase in greenhouse gas emissions needs to be halted in
the next decade and emissions then need to be cut significantly.
CCS will not be ready in time. Ironically, the suggestion that the
technology may be made to work some time in the future is being
used to justify building new coal-fired power plants without any
form of carbon 'capture'.
What makes most sense is not building coal-fired power plants in
the first place. Carbon is already 'stored' safely underground: we
call it coal. Let's leave it there. Adapting an old phrase, "when
you find yourself in a (climate) hole, the first thing is to stop
It is a perverse situation where policymakers who claim to
recognise the urgency of cutting greenhouse gas emissions are
considering bankrolling the development of an unproven technology
over funding proven pollution-free renewable energy sources and
energy efficiency improvements.
CCS is unproven, risky and expensive and investing in it
threatens to undermine the range of clean energy solutions which
are available right now.
CCS not ready in time
Climate experts say the worst impacts of climate change can be
averted by levelling off global warming pollution by 2015 and
turning down the burner after that. But the earliest that CCS will
be ready is 2030. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change is even less optimistic. The IPCC doesn't
see CCS being commercially viable until even later - around
CCS wastes energy and resources
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide would be a major energy
consumer, gobbling up anything from 10 to 40% of a power plant's
electricity output. So more coal needs to be mined, transported,
and burned for a power station to generate the same amount of
energy as it would without CCS.
Demands for cooling water also increase dramatically. Power
stations with capture technology could require 90% more freshwater
than those without. CCS is expected to erase gains in power plant
energy efficiency made over the past 50 years, and increase
resource consumption by one-third.
Storing carbon underground is risky
It is uncertain whether there is sufficient suitable space
underground to bury enough carbon to have any meaningful climate
Humanity has no experience of safely storing anything forever.
But locking up carbon dioxide underground in perpetuity is exactly
what would need to be accomplished with CCS. A leakage rate of just
1% could potentially undermine any climate benefit. Tests have
thrown up unexpected results, such CO2 disintegrating storage
CCS is expensive and undermines real solutions to climate
CCS could well mean electricity price rises of between 21 and
91%. Clean energy sources, such as wind power, provide electricity
much more cheaply than coal-fired plants fitted with CCS will ever
be able to. The funding to get CCS off the ground - including
substantial sums of taxpayer's money - comes at the expense of real
solutions. In countries it has been pursued, CCS has taken up an
increasing share of energy research and development budgets whereas
funding for renewable technologies and energy efficiency has
stagnated or declined.
In the US, for example, the Department of Energy has asked for
the CCS programme budget to be raised to US $623.6 million. At the
same time, it is scaling back renewable energy research to US
$146.2 million. Worse still, legislation introduced on Capitol Hill
would allocate a whopping US $424 billion to a dedicated fund for
CCS. Australia, meanwhile, has three research centres devoted to
fossil fuels, including one committed to CCS, but none for
renewable energy technology.
CCS and liability: risky business
Large-scale CCS applications pose significant and new liability
risks, including negative impacts on human health, damage to
ecosystems, groundwater contamination such as the pollution of
drinking water and increased greenhouse gas emissions from
Again, energy interests want a free ride by being relieved of
liability in return for investing in CCS. Some demand they be
relieved of ownership of CO2 at
the power plant gates, or that they remain liable for CO2 dumped underground for a mere ten
The costs of any mishaps would have to be covered from the
The extent of support offered to the recently collapsed
FutureGen project in the US gives some inkling of the real costs of
CCS. FutureGen was the Bush Administration's flagship CCS project.
It not only received unprecedented public funds (to the tune of US
$1.3 bn) but was protected from financial and legal liability in
the event of an unanticipated release of carbon, indemnified from
lawsuits and even had its insurance premiums paid.
The alternative to CCS: renewables and energy efficiency
Renewable energy and energy saving have proven track records in
meeting energy needs safely, cleanly, predictably and
cost-effectively. The world has sufficient technically accessible
renewable energy to meet global energy needs six times over.
Compare that to the risky and expensive option of CCS which is
still on the drawing board.
Full details of how clean energy and energy efficiency can cut
almost halve global CO2
emissions by 2050 are contained in
Greenpeace's Energy [R]evolution blueprint.
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