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A discussion of the issues and policies related to carbon capture and storage technology.*

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CCS: Sparking Deployment


This post was written by David Hawkins, NRDC Director of Climate Programs, and originally appeared on GCCSI's Insights.

I came away from the Global CCS Institute’s eighth annual Members' meeting in Seoul earlier this month with a feeling of frustration that I sense many attendees shared. Though I suspect the reasons for my frustration may differ from many of the other attendees.

At the meeting, there was much discussion of the sluggish pace of carbon capture and storage (CCS) deployment and the modest level of government support for CCS – a level most participants believe is well below what is needed to get more of the first commercial round of CCS projects financed and built.

There was little in the way of assessment of the reasons for this state of affairs and this is what has been on my mind since the meeting. In my view, the general lack of support, both political and financial, for CCS can be tied to two large factors: the attitude of most governments and industries regarding the need for serious, near-term action to abate climate-disrupting emissions – an attitude which is a mixture of lip service, indifference, and outright hostility; and the attitude of most environmental organisations toward CCS – a mixture of vocal support from a few and indifference and outright hostility from many.

This piece is to suggest what I think industry leaders can and must do to help change the situation.

First, industry leaders need to decide it is time to go all in on the matter of greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation policies. The truth is that most governments will never provide the level of support that pioneer CCS efforts need and most businesses will never spend the private capital required until the world’s biggest emitting countries embrace serious mitigation efforts. Industry’s stance on this matter is critical. Without active support for serious policies from business, governments will continue as they have for too long, with tentative, toe-in-the water programs that fail to provide the policy framework to make CCS viable as a meaningful part of a strategy.

Many business people of good faith have hesitated to organise a serious advocacy effort for GHG mitigation because they fear the policies that may be adopted will harm their business interests. This stance, while understandable, ignores the growing reality that ignoring climate disruption poses even greater risks to business interests, especially in the energy area.

Many in the fossil fuel sector say they want technologies like CCS to be perfected before they can endorse policies that would make such technologies a rational best practice. But this creates a chicken and egg dilemma, where hesitation on the policy front creates hesitation on deployment of technologies like CCS. In my view, if business waits until political pressures to deal with climate disruption are so enormous that governments are forced to respond, the policy chicken that emerges is not likely to be designed to lay many CCS eggs. If there has been no meaningful political constituency developed for CCS, why would one expect policymakers to prioritise CCS when they respond to demands for action?

Which brings me to the second big problem that business needs to confront more effectively: the fact that the core constituency for action to protect the climate – environmentalists, clean energy advocates, progressives – are mostly either lukewarm or hostile to CCS. This is not a new point; it is one I have made repeatedly to business audiences going on 15 years now.

Part of the reason for the persistent hostility from the "green" community is their view (mostly accurate) of the fossil fuel sector's position on climate protection. Given the mixture of opposition and hesitation to emission abatement policies from this sector, the view of the "green" community is that CCS is not really a tool to enable serious emission cuts but is rather the premise for an argument to delay adoption of climate protection policies. A cursory Google search will produce far too many examples of fossil fuel spokespersons arguing that policy change must await the further development of CCS, a development that seems always to be a decade or more in the future.

In the US, we are witnessing the latest example of the "CCS yes, but not yet" syndrome. In response to the US Environment Protection Agency's (EPA) proposal to base emission limits for new coal plants on partial CCS, most in industry are declaring that this move means the death of coal and are busy creating a record of claims that CCS is just not ready.

US fossil fuel interests are at a crossroads with this rulemaking. If they persist in an effort to block the EPA"s rule by attempting to create a drumbeat that CCS is not an available technology, the result may be to further disenchant the green community and the public at large with the idea that CCS might be part of the climate protection solution set.

Another barrier to acceptance of CCS by the green community is the belief that if CCS is employed it will be at the expense of greater reliance on energy efficiency and renewables resources. Here again, I think there are things the proponents of CCS can do to reduce this conflict. (I am not suggesting there is nothing the green community can do to ease this conflict but the audience for this post is largely made up of CCS proponents.)

Part of the reason the green community sees CCS as a threat to efficiency and renewables is that CCS proponents often make the case for CCS by arguing that renewables are, and always will be, too expensive to get the job done. But this is not a proposition that many in the green community are going to accept as a given.  Hence an argument that relies on this claim is not likely to be persuasive.

There are a couple of lines of argument for CCS that are more persuasive (to me at least). The first is a gap-closing argument. Why not examine the most ambitious scenarios of renewables penetration in the literature and calculate the cumulative emissions from fossil energy use and other GHG emissions while renewables are being brought to the requisite scale? Under any scenarios with which I am familiar, there will be a very large amount of cumulative emissions under the best of circumstances. Every tonne of that cumulative "residual" adds to the risk of serious climate disruption. If CCS could reduce that residual substantially, why wouldn’t one want to include it in the solution set?


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