Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

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Geo-engineering: False solution to climate change

The following article debunks myths about geoengineering and the belief that it can create “negative emissions” with carbon capture and storage technologies. It was published in the March-April 2019 issue of NewsNotes.

As warnings regarding climate change increase in severity, many possible solutions are being considered. Unfortunately, these include some false responses under the guise of “geoengineering” that are unlikely to diminish greenhouse gases significantly and will distract attention and resources from better solutions while strengthening the fossil fuel economy. One technology that is key for the success of many proposed geoengineering solutions is creating “negative emissions” with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon capture and storage technologies remove carbon dioxide gas from the emissions of coal plants, cement factories, tar sands and other oil refineries but require significant amounts of energy to do so — using between 15 and 30 percent of original energy production — thus increasing direct emissions. The gas is then compressed to be transported by truck or pipeline, each with their own dangers and threats of gas leaks.  

The vast majority of removed CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery, a type of extraction where carbon gas is pumped into old oil fields in order to be able to extract harder to reach oil. This additional oil increases greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Global CCS Institute has shown that despite many billions of dollars in research and more than 15 years of development, there are only 18 commercially operating CCS facilities in the world, 13 of which are used for EOR and three of the five in construction will be used for the same. The Guardian explored the best of these projects and found them very expensive while removing miniscule portions of CO2.

'Unproven Technology'

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis released a report in November showing that transporting and storing a meaningful amount of CO2 in the U.S. would require “financing, permitting and construction of a massive new national pipeline system—one on the magnitude of the existing oil and gas pipeline network.” David Schlissel, co-author of the report said, “The technology remains unproven at full commercial scale, it is wildly expensive, there are serious questions regarding after-capture transport, injection and storage of the captured CO2 and—most important—more reliable and far cheaper power-generation options exist.”

'Carbon Negative' Fallacy

Carbon dioxide can also be used in industrial products like synthetic fuels, petrochemicals, plastics and cements (called carbon capture use and storage - CCUS). The fundamental problem here is that the CO2 is not removed but rather imbed in products that release the gas later when burnt or while decomposing. This process also creates additional emission in making the products, so few, if any, CCUS projects are truly carbon negative. 

Many see the combining of bioenergy projects with CCS (BECCS) as the negative emissions technique with the most potential. This entails growing trees, switchgrass, corn or other forms of biomass to be burnt to create energy while capturing the carbon dioxide produced in the process and storing it. Biofuel Watch has an infographic showing the problems at each stage of BECCS, from deforestation to monocropping and land grabbing and how the majority of captured gas will likely be used to extract oil from older wells.

Studies have also shown that for BECCS to remove even one gigaton of carbon annually (about 2 percent of global emissions) it would require unrealistic amounts of land (estimates range from BECCS requiring 25 to 80 percent of current global cropland) and water (BECCS alone could require more than double the amount currently used for irrigation in food production).

Despite these stark limits, almost all of the IPCC’s future scenarios depend on a increase in carbon dioxide removal, mostly through BECCS. Across the scenarios with a 66 percent or better chance of limiting warming to two degrees, the median amount of CO2 to be removed by BECCS is equivalent to more than 25 percent of current emissions — a very unlikely possibility.

Benefits for Fossil Fuel Industry

Yet the biggest problems with CCS and its derivates are the fact that this solution benefits the fossil fuel industry most of all, as well as the “moral hazard par excellence” that it creates for society. The Center for International Environmental Law recently released a report showing how CCS “is valuable to the fossil fuel industry in three key ways: it expands oil production, provides a lifeline to a declining coal industry, and further entrenches the overall fossil fuel economy.” It is no surprise that fossil fuel corporations have been leading research and advocacy for carbon removal technologies. 

A Simpler, More Realistic Solution

Also, focusing on technologies like CCS distracts from developing more realistic and workable solutions and further entrenches the fossil fuel economy. Simon Holmes à Court, senior adviser to the Energy Transition Hub at Melbourne University sums up the issue well, “One way to reduce coal’s impact is to capture, compress and bury its emissions – but it’s much simpler, cheaper and safer to simply leave the coal in the ground.”