Focusing on removing carbon from the air diverts attention and money from doing the real work.
At Climate and Capital, we’re pleased to debut an occasional series, “Emerging Voices,” featuring the work of university students on topics ranging from more sustainable business and agriculture practices, to private and public funding of innovative cleantech that can capture carbon or pollution, create jobs and profits, and bring about healthy products, people and planet.
This is the first in our series, written by Eva Kappas, a Brown University freshman who says, “I’m from St. Louis, MO, a state that despite being landlocked still faces climate threats already in the form of river acidification and more extreme tornadoes and storms. Volunteering with the Sunrise Movement sparked my interest in climate politics four years ago. I’m interested in environmental policy but had never learned about climate finance, so I’m taking this class to learn how finance, when paired with policy, can spur the clean energy transition.”
We hope you’ll enjoy the series, and find emerging voices like Eva’s as compelling as we do.
“The future belongs to young people, with an education and the imagination to create.”
— Barclay Palmer, Editor
Imagine a bathtub. The water level is rising. The open faucet? That’s all of our sources of carbon dioxide emissions, rushing in. The tub? That’s our carbon dioxide concentration. Some water will slowly evaporate, as land and the ocean uptake carbon via natural processes. And then at one end of the tub is a tiny drain. That drain is carbon capture and storage. Like a bathtub in which a wide open faucet will make the water rise despite the drain being open, even a dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions will not reduce concentrations as long as emissions outpace removals.
So what’s the fastest way to stop the tub from overflowing? To widen the drain, with all the time, effort, money and technical challenges that would take, or to turn off the faucet? In a world in which emissions are rushing out with frightening force, advocates for carbon capture and storage have decided to throw their money down the drain.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is intended to reduce the warming effects of emissions by capturing released carbon dioxide, transporting it, and storing it underground. Cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — and fossil fuel companies from ExxonMobil to Shell — as a critical tool for meeting Paris Agreement targets, CCS can seem like a silver bullet solution to climate change. Why worry about reducing emissions when we can suck them out of the atmosphere?
CCS has diverted a vast amount of time and energy, and billions of dollars, from productive efforts to reduce emissions.
Scientists, however, note that CCS doesn’t work. Nearly 500 environmental organizations in 2021 sent an open letter to President Biden, saying: “Despite the billions of taxpayer dollars spent by governments in both the United States and Canada on CCS over the last ten-plus years, the technology has not made a dent in CO2 emissions.” In other words, CCS has diverted a vast amount of time and energy, and billions of dollars, from productive efforts to reduce emissions. With 2°C of global warming approaching, scientists warn that governments around the world must focus on proven methods to stop or slow emissions, and leave CCS explorations to private investors.
Chevron’s Gorgon Project provides a chilling example of the lack of accountability on the part of CCS projects that cost taxpayers millions, but fail. Located off Barrow Island, Australia, Gorgon is a liquid natural gas facility that promised, in exchange for $60 million in government funding, to capture and store a rolling average per year of 24 million metric tons (Mt) or 80% of carbon dioxide emissions released during production.
Six years later, Chevron’s Gorgon Project has captured only 5.5 million metric tons, while releasing an additional 20.4 million metric tons of carbon. That’s 20.4 million metric tons of carbon released into the atmosphere that was supposed to be captured but will never be recovered. To compensate, Chevron was forced to buy carbon credits. But the previous government’s decision to allow Australian carbon offset projects to break government contracts let prices plummet, according to carbon market analyst Reputex. This let Chevron buy them at prices that normally would be significantly below market.
The Gorgon CCS plant is still working at only one-third capacity after three years of delay. As of 2022, Chevron had predicted an additional shortfall in carbon storage over the next 5 years, but would not disclose how many carbon credits it would purchase to offset the shortfall.
“The bottom line here is that the Gorgon CCS plant was enormously expensive and it doesn’t work,” Bruce Robertson, a gas industry finance analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told The Guardian.
Beneath the bottom line lies a more sinister realization: carbon capture and storage projects have become not just ineffective, but duplicitous. The practice of CCS enables a continued reliance on fossil fuels. In “An Assessment of CCS Costs, Barriers and Potential,” researchers at Imperial College of London found that “in modeled energy system transition pathways that limit global warming to less than 2 °C, scenarios without CCS result in 26% of fossil fuel reserves being consumed by 2050, against 37% being consumed when CCS is available.” And by 2100, “the scenarios without CCS have only consumed slightly more fossil fuel reserves (33%), whereas scenarios with CCS available end up consuming 65%” of fossil fuel reserves.
The use of CCS prolongs and normalizes the pollution of fossil fuels in our energy system [and] slows the crucial transition to renewables…
That means CCS provides a guise of emissions reductions under which fossil fuel companies can emit much more than governments would have allowed had the companies not adopted misleading CCS mitigation measures. The use of CCS prolongs and normalizes the pollution of fossil fuels in our energy system, slows the crucial transition to renewables and therefore undercuts the health of people and the planet.
In fact, CCS has long been used to produce more fossil fuels. A 2022 study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that 73% of carbon extracted annually is employed in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), during which captured carbon is pumped back into the ground to extract more oil and gas.
Historically the only profitable use of captured carbon, EOR undermines the work that CCS has done by providing more fossil fuels to burn. And the profitability of these fossil fuels themselves has recently been called into question, as Mark Campanale’s research on “stranded assets” and the erratic decline in the price of oil have exposed. Yet Shell, TotalEnergies and Equinor continue to invest in CCS despite its lack of return on investment.
“There isn’t one example of a CCS project anywhere in the world that offers a financial justification for investing in CCS,” IEEFA reports.
Given its limited financial value and counterproductive environmental impact, it’s clear that CCS is used for greenwashing, and certainly not for emission reductions. As IEEFA added, “it is arguable that CCS is little more than a helpful marketing message.”
In the past year, heat waves in Europe killed 20,000 people, devastating floods affected 33 million Pakistanis, and Hurricane Ida wreaked $112 billion in damage in Florida and Cuba. As we hesitate on cutting emissions, extreme weather, driven by climate change, continues to strike, costing us an escalating billions of dollars of damage every year.
We don’t have time or money to waste on ineffective CCS projects. As 500 climate-concerned organizations wrote the Biden Administration, “CCS projects implemented to date have systematically overpromised and under-delivered on emissions reductions.” About 90% of proposed CCS in the power sector has not been realized. Completed projects remove pitiful amounts of carbon compared to what their fossil fuel extraction arms emit. In addition, CCS projects attached to oil and gas sites — which constituted 70% of all CCS projects in 2022 — do nothing to remedy vast and harmful Scope 3 emissions that result from burning fossil fuels. Initiatives that engage fossil fuels’ Scope 3 emissions through direct air capture are prohibitively costly.
CCS projects attached to oil and gas sites — which constituted 70% of all CCS projects in 2022 — do nothing to remedy vast and harmful Scope 3 emissions that result from the burning of fossil fuels.
Yes, CCS can take carbon from the atmosphere, but in quantities far lower than what’s emitted, promised or needed. CCS does nothing to stop or slow emissions — and distracts from more practical efforts to do so. Paths to “net zero” charted by multiple governments would save money, reduce risk, and be far more effective. We have inexpensive tools to reduce the flow of emissions: wind and solar energy now cost less than fossil fuels, and renewables prices will continue falling. Investments in electrical grid resilience and subsidies to build out renewables would do more for energy security than continuing to build on a polluting and unsustainable energy system that will leave trillions in “stranded assets.”
It was the pioneering environmental scientist, writer and educator Dana (Donnella) Meadows who in her groundbreaking 1972 book The Limits to Growth first noted how the dynamics of a bathtub can explain nature’s systems. Let’s follow the sound advice she gave us 50 years ago, and leave the carbon drain to high-risk financial plumbers searching under the sink for some back-door solution to climate change. What we need to do is turn off the faucet.
Eva Kappas wrote this article as an assignment for her class, “Finance and the Environment.” Professor Ricardo Bayon had asked his students to write four op-eds each to build skills in making their case. Bayon also is a member of the advisory committee to the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, and a founder and partner of Encourage Capital, an asset management firm focused on profitable and strategic investments to solve critical social and environmental problems.
Featured photo: Chevron’s Gorgon Project