The environment and economy can’t afford trillion-dollar carbon capture

The environment and economy can’t afford trillion-dollar carbon capture

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Despite a deal that includes a transition “away from fossil fuels” among the 200 countries gathered at the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, negotiators left the door open to a wildly expensive and speculative tech fix that could increase climate pollution while extending the life of the fossil fuel industry. 

The controversial technology called carbon capture and storage emerged as a “flashpoint” among world leaders who met in Dubai to explore climate action. That probably shouldn’t come as any surprise given this year’s conference was hosted by the United Arab Emirates, an oil giant, and that COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber went so far as to contend there is “no science” behind the worldwide calls to end fossil fuels. 

Major oil and gas-producing countries use carbon capture and storage to clamor for continued fossil fuel use and production. These countries are promoting carbon capture as a means of “abating” climate change pollutants because it makes them money and slows the transition away from fossil fuels. 

Carbon capture and storage is supposed to capture carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources and pump them deep underground. However, after dedicating more than 15 years to this field, I know that the technology is a costly distraction and an ineffective carbon solution

A new study offers hard numbers to demonstrate that using carbon capture to compensate for ongoing fossil fuel burning is an economic and climate fallacy. This confirms my understanding that relying on carbon capture would waste trillions of dollars when compared to renewable energy solutions. 

The report from the University of Oxford finds that net-zero pathways that are heavily dependent on carbon capture and storage will cost at least $1 trillion more per year than scenarios involving renewables. It explains that oil and gas-producing countries pushing for carbon capture technology as a substitute for immediate emissions cuts are grossly underestimating the costs of carbon capture and storage. 

Its research demonstrates that heavy dependence on carbon capture and storage to reach net zero targets around 2050 would be “highly economically damaging,” costing at least $30 trillion more than a route based primarily on renewable energy, energy efficiency and electrification. The report also provides “the first publicly available, comprehensive summary of estimates of the cost of fossil power with carbon capture and storage over the last 40 years, and finds no evidence of falling costs.” 

Oxford’s researchers rightfully warned that carbon capture and storage should only be used in very select industries in which abating climate pollutants is especially hard, not as a masquerade for continued fossil fuel production and consumption. Industries like cement production and some chemical sector processes will require carbon capture to reach our climate goals, but the problem is that’s not where the technology is being used. 

Carbon capture fails as a climate solution because virtually all of the technology is being used to produce and burn more oil and methane gas, creating even more climate pollution. This process pipes the “captured” carbon dioxide and injects it into oil fields to extract additional oil and gas that would otherwise be trapped underground. 

Of the 12 commercial carbon capture projects in operation in 2021, more than 90 percent were engaged in this process of “enhanced oil recovery,” according to an industry report. Another report concluded that throughout history, around 80-90 percent of all captured carbon is used for enhanced oil recovery, which itself leads to more carbon dioxide emissions.

The financial waste of carbon capture makes it even more imperative to avoid falling for this climate change mirage. The Department of Energy has wasted billions of dollars on failed carbon capture demonstration projects. Even with these massive taxpayer subsidies, carbon capture companies continue to fail. Adding insult to injury, carbon capture companies also qualify for massive tax credits known as 45Q with virtually no verification or accountability that they capture carbon emissions, making it rife for fraud and abuse

For years, I wanted to believe that carbon capture and storage could be part of our climate change solution. And taxpayers have spent billions of dollars subsidizing the oil and gas industry to support carbon capture and storage research and experimental projects. Yet all of those projects have not only consistently failed to reduce carbon dioxide, but now the technology is being used as nothing more than a guise for continued fossil fuel production and consumption. 

Today we know that shifting to renewable energy, which actually works and is much less expensive, is our solution. We cannot waste trillions of dollars on the false promises of carbon capture and storage. 

We have to learn from our mistakes; our future isn’t in oil and gas. Sensible climate solutions lie in our investments in renewable energy — not more subsidies for fossil fuel polluters.

Robert Warren Howarth, Ph.D. is an Earth systems scientist with more than 40 years of experience in research and policy related to human-accelerated global change. Howarth has served as a tenured faculty member at Cornell University since 1985, published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers and served on committees and panels for the National Academy of Sciences, the International Council of Science and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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