Big industry tries everything to save their CO2-intensive way of production. One false solution it offers is Carbon Capturing and Storage (CCS). The theory is that at facilities producing a lot of CO2, like fossilfuelled power plants or cement factories, the greenhouse gas would be captured, collected, and then pressed under earth to be stored forever. This way, climate polluters get to claim that their operations are ‘carbon neutral’.
This idea is problematic for a range of reasons. It is difficult and energy-intensive to extract CO2 pre- or post- combustion, e.g. from exhaust streams or flue gases. At the moment, only test facilities exist, and the effectiveness of the power plants is significantly reduced, which means that even more coal is burned for the same amount of electricity. The process thus effectively hides carbon emissions.
And where does the CO2 go? Pressing gas under the earth can contaminate the ground water. Earthquakes or other events might result in CO2 leakage from underground and reservoir storages. Deep ocean storage remains untested and frequently dismissed as environmentally unacceptable due to ocean acidification.137 In Germany, CO2 storage testing was cancelled because of protests by local communities.
Furthermore, it is not clear whether the gas will stay under the ground for several thousand years. In other words, the whole process might not be worth the additional energy it requires and even cause a sudden, catastrophic CO2 leakage. Even if storage could be managed in a safe and permanent way, places for storage are very limited, not really making CCS a solution for fighting climate change. With Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS), the CO2 is often used to flush out the last gas or oil from depleted oil fields or used in the chemical industry. Therefore, it is likely that the capture of CO2 means that more fossil fuels are burnt and overall, a greater amount of CO2 is produced.
Despite these problems, corporations and politicians want to use the CCS/CCUS technology not just to make coal ‘clean’, but also to create so-called ‘negative emissions’. The term ‘negative emission’ implies that carbon is eliminated from the atmosphere. This would enable us to go on with the CO2-intensive business as usual. The Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) scheme, for instance, tries to develop technologies that copy plants and their ability to incorporate CO2 from air in the process of photosynthesis. In reality, however, it is technically very demanding to extract CO2 due to its low concentration in the air. In BECCS, the CO2 is therefore captured from the processing or burning of organic sources, like the production of alcohol from sugar cane or the burning of wood. This technology is touted as ‘carbon negative’ as the companies claim to replace the trees that are burnt, to capture the carbon these trees had sequestered during their lifetimes, and to pump it underground.
This ignores the clear difference between the carbon that is contained in a mature native tree – an ecosystem in itself – and a newly planted tree in a plantation. Not only are plantations not comparable to the biodiverse habitats that (mature) forests provide, but the new tree may not survive, and – if it survives – will take many years to absorb the equivalent amount of CO2 as the one it supposedly replaces. It might be a long time before the young tree fulfils a useful ecological niche, if one exists for its species where it has been planted. Not least, the need to transport the old tree to the power plant, the loss of energy through inefficiencies in the system, and the transmission of electricity show that carbon negativity is a lie. And this lie may cause additional conflicts by competing for land with food producers and wildlife.
Although the development of CCS and BECCS is very slow, and many have been pointing to the problems associated with these technologies, governments continue to pour funding into both fields. Both techniques sound too good to be true. And indeed they are. We must not get distracted from demanding the immediate ban of fossil fuels (and biomass) from the dirty dreams of big industry.