CCS, CDR, DAC — The Dangerous Lies Behind Those Carbon Management Schemes

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At the UN Climate Ambition Summit in September, COP 28 president Sultan Al Jaber told those in attendance that a “phase down,” not a “phase out,” of fossil fuels is needed to combat climate change. He also talked about building “an energy system free of all unabated fossil fuels,” as part and parcel of a carbon management program.

According to DeSmog, the term “unabated” has become a major reference term  in the climate diplomacy conversation ever since COP 26 in Glasgow.  That’s when governments agreed to accelerate efforts “towards the phase down of unabated coal power.” The term “unabated” serves as a qualifier to suggest that fossil fuels can be rendered “clean” through carbon capture and storage (CCS) and engineered carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Together they are known as “carbon management.” Direct air capture (DAC) is a variant of CDR technology.

Carbon Management At COP 28

We will be hearing a lot about unabated fossil fuels and carbon management during the COP 28 summit. There is only one problem. There is presently no technology that has proven capable of sequestering carbon from industrial processes or removing it from the atmosphere directly in the quantities necessary to offset the carbon emissions fossil fuel companies and nations plan to add to the atmosphere over the next 25 years.

To put it bluntly, we are being told, “Trust us,” by the very people we know have been lying to us for 50 years. They want us to believe their carbon management plans are a done deal, when in fact they are just pie in the sky blandishments with no possibility of living up to their over-hyped promise. “That idea that we can build more fossil fuels but it’s OK because we can mitigate the emissions, or we’ll be able to pull carbon out of the air, or out of the smokestacks, I think is incredibly dangerous,” says Collin Rees, US program manager at Oil Change International.

“There is overwhelming scientific evidence that we need to phase out all fossil fuels as rapidly as possible,” says Ploy Achakulwisut, research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute and co-author of the UN Production Gap Report. That report takes into account the significant risks and uncertainties around carbon management tools like CCS and CDR, and warns that the potential failure of these technologies to reach a scale sufficient to have a measurable impact on the environment makes it even more urgent to phase out of all fossil fuels. Given the feasibility concerns around scaling up carbon management technologies, the report urges governments to strive to phase out coal by 2040 and slash oil and gas production and use by three-quarters (from 2020 levels) by 2050 at a minimum.

Achakulwisut noted that even though the majority of modeled climate mitigation scenarios from the latest IPCC report assume that large amounts of CCS and CDR facilities can be deployed successfully, there is little evidence to back this assumption. In fact, annual capacity from operating CCS projects resulting in dedicated storage currently amounts to less than 0.1 percent of global annual carbon dioxide emissions, she said. When it comes to reducing overall global carbon emissions, carbon management is not making a dent.

Carbon Management In 2030

That will remain the case in 2030 as well, with CCS deployment still not able to move the needle on lowering emissions by then. “Even if all CCS facilities planned and under development worldwide become operational,” the Production Gap report explains, “only around 0.25 gigatons of CO2 would be captured in 2030 — less than 1% of 2022 global CO2 emissions.” The report refers to an International Energy Agency dataset which projects, as of March 2023, less than 350 million metric tons of CO2 capture capacity from all of the global CCS projects planned, under construction, and operational in 2030.

The International Energy Agency’s updated Net Zero road map report released in September references a slightly higher figure, saying that around 400 million metric tons of CO2 could be captured by 2030 if all planned CCS projects get built. “There’s a huge range of evidence which is very clear that CCS and CDR will not be able to scale fast enough to make a meaningful contribution to cutting emissions this decade,” said Neil Grant, climate and energy analyst at Climate Analytics. “And that means in this decade, the solution has to be reducing fossil fuel production and use.”

Carbon management technologies, he added, “are very nascent.” Most existing direct air capture (DAC) operations are small scale pilot projects. The world’s first commercial scale DAC plant, called Orca and based in Iceland, has the ability to capture up to 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of about 800 cars worldwide, or approximately three seconds worth of global carbon dioxide emissions.

0.01 Percent Is Not Enough

Government subsidies and investment are flowing into direct air capture, with plans to develop at least 130 DAC facilities now underway. But according to a new briefing paper from the Center for International Environmental Law, even if all the planned DAC projects in the world get built and operate at full capacity, they would only be able to remove 4.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2030 — equivalent to just 0.01 percent of current global energy sector emissions. Even assuming that DAC could eventually reach a massive scale, the enormous quantities of chemicals and energy inputs required to operate the machinery raises further feasibility and sustainability questions.

Essentially, the math just doesn’t add up in terms of the projected scale up of the carbon management sector in what experts say is the critical decade to curb planet-warming emissions by at least 50 percent. Experts say CCS and CDR would have to reach gigaton scale in less than 10 years, and there is no assurance that it will get there in time.

DeSmog points out that only a few dozen CCS facilities are currently operational at the global level, 14 of which are in the US. Combined, they can capture and store 49 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. However, that total capacity is not the same as the amount actually captured and sequestered, since CCS facilities often do not operate at their maximum potential. When considering the additional energy required to power CCS operations, and given that the vast majority of existing projects use the captured carbon dioxide to extract more oil and gas — a process called enhanced recovery — the net result is generally more, not less, greenhouse gas emissions.

“The U.S. has been publicly subsidizing carbon capture projects since the early 1980s,” says Collin Rees of Oil Change International. “We have over 40 years of evidence that it doesn’t work.” IPCC cautions that CCS “currently faces technological, economic, institutional, ecological-environmental, and socio-cultural barriers” and notes that global deployment rates are “far below those in modeled pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C.”

Be Very, Very Skeptical

Given this context, DeSmog says it is reasonable to doubt the promises made by carbon capture proponents. The numbers make it clear, as Climate Analytics’ Grant explained during the Production Gap Report launch event, that CCS and CDR technologies “are not going to be the solutions for cutting emissions in this critical decade.”

A new Global Witness analysis further substantiates this point. It says it would take 340 years to capture the carbon dioxide that will result from the latest plan by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) to ramp up oil and gas extraction between now and 2030. ADNOC is headed by Sultan Al Jaber, the president of COP28. New data shows ADNOC’s planned increase in output would result in the largest overshoot of the 1.5° C goal of any fossil fuel company in the world. Global Witness says that even if ADNOC reaches the planned 10 million metric tons per year of carbon dioxide capture by 2030, that would mitigate just two percent of the company’s projected 492 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2030.

“If Al Jaber is serious — if we are serious — we must immediately reject the CCS false solution and tackle the existential oil and gas problem head on,” Jonathan Noronha Gant of Global Witness said in a statement.

At the Production Gap Report event, Neil Grant emphasized that carbon capture technologies “do not replace the need for rapid and permanent reduction of fossil fuels. And they therefore really can’t be used as a justification for continued expansion of fossil fuel extraction, which is a narrative we’re seeing being pushed around the world, particularly as we come towards COP 28.”

The Takeaway

There is an old expression that says only lawyers and painters can turn black to white. Perhaps it’s time to add climate conference leaders to that list. By throwing around phantasmagorical figures about what carbon capture, carbon dioxide removal, and direct air capture can do, Sultan Al Jaber is spinning a web of lies and outright deceit intended to allow fossil fuel interests to keep on keeping on when it comes to sucking oil and gas out of the ground and burning it.

These people are shining us on with empty promises dressed up in flowery phrases designed to bamboozle the weak minded and faint of heart. The truth is, the only thing that will allow average global temperatures to remain below dangerous levels is to dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels. Everything else is Grade A horse puckey. And just imagine if all the money being invested in these harebrained schemes was spent on building clean energy projects instead. That’s something that really could make a difference.

But be prepared for glowing pronouncements from COP 28 extolling the virtues of carbon abatement, even though there is no such thing. We are being played for fools right out in the open and before our very eyes. Don’t fall for those fossil fuel tricks. We have reached the end of the line for these deceptions. If we don’t end the hegemony of fossil fuels now, we may never get another chance.

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