Renewables Offset 35 Times More CO2 Every Year Than All Carbon Capture Projects Ever, New Analysis Finds

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Wind turbines in the California desert

A new analysis by Clean Technica found that global investment in carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) adds up to roughly $7.5 billion total. It also examined how much, for that investment, CCS has reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels compared to an equivalent investment in renewable power generation.

The analysis calculated that “wind and solar are displacing roughly 35 times as much CO2 every year as the complete global history of CCS.” Clean Technica's Mike Barnard concluded, “CCS is a rounding error in global warming mitigation.”

Carbon capture, which includes a range of nascent technologies to remove CO2 directly from the air, is a favorite climate change mitigation strategy of the fossil fuel industry. Theoretically, CCS would allow power plants and vehicles to continue burning fossil fuels while reducing the resulting carbon emissions from that combustion. This is the concept behind the failed idea of so-called “clean coal.”

A former Obama Energy Department official told the Washington Post, “Carbon capture and storage makes coal more expensive, not less.” With coal already unable to compete with renewables on cost, adding CCS is a deal-breaker.

That same Washington Post article points out that oil companies are among those investing in carbon capture but “[t]hey are lured not so much by the virtues of fighting climate change but by the prospects of making money.”

Clean Technica's Barnard notes that leading carbon capture organization, the Global CCS Institute, claims to be an “international climate change organization.” However, its list of members contain many organizations, like ExxonMobil, with a long history of active climate change denial, which led to Barnard describing the organization as “more like a PR arm of the fossil fuel industry.”

recent study by the Center for International Environmental Law warns that promoting carbon capture technology could hinder the adoption of renewable power, which would be a boon to its main competitor, the fossil fuel industry.

Carbon Capture’s Dirty Secret

The concept of removing carbon from the atmosphere to slow climate change certainly has merit, as many experts have pointed out, and if it were technologically and economically feasible, incorporating this approach would make sense in any plan to limit the damages of climate change. However, “negative emissions technologies,” as they are also called, currently are neither technologically nor economically feasible to deploy on a scale with any meaningful impact.

Another reason the fossil fuel industry is a fan of CCS reveals how little impact the approach can have based on how the carbon is sequestered after its capture.

In one variation of a process known as enhanced oil recovery, the oil and gas industry pumps carbon dioxide into older oil fields to increase the amount of oil that can be recovered from existing wells. The practice, which can also include pumping steam, water, chemicals, or bacteria into wells, is common in the U.S., constituting 60 percent of oil and gas production as of 2017.

That means carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere is being pumped below ground into oil fields, helping produce oil that is then burned and adding an estimated equivalent of 90 percent of that carbon back into the atmosphere, according to Clean Technica. In addition, a 2017 report from the environmental group Clean Water Action noted: “Given the enormous variability in subsurface conditions, the extent the CO2 actually stays in the desired formation without any migration is unclear.”

Is Carbon Capture Necessary?

Visual representation of one metric ton of carbon dioxide gas with humans and city for scale
One metric ton of carbon dioxide gas (annotated). Credit: Carbon VisualsCC BY 2.0

Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will help slow climate change and its impacts. And climate models, including those from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), include CCS as part of their scenarios for keeping global warming below 1.5°C (2.7°F). While the current state of the technology is not capable of achieving the levels of carbon capture required by those models, proven solutions to the world's climate goals do exist.

A new analysis from researchers at Swiss University ETH Zurich concludes that planting 1.2 trillion new trees around the globe could “capture” a decade's worth of carbon emissions.

Of course, while trees would effectively capture atmospheric CO2, the world’s forests currently are being harvested for paper, cut down for agriculture, and burned for energy.

In another recent study, an international team of researchers published an analysis this month in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Energy, which concluded that limiting warming to 1.5°C degrees above pre-industrial temperatures is possible without using carbon capture technology. They write that “renewables plus storage provide a more energetically effective approach to climate mitigation than constructing CCS fossil-fuel power stations.”

As renewables and energy storage continue to fall in price and become the cheapest form of power generation in America and around the world, the evidence suggests that rapidly transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables is the most effective approach to addressing climate change in addition to being a solid business decision.

The fossil fuel industry is aware of this threat to its business model, which means the world should expect to continue seeing the industry back groups like the Global CSS Initiative and push “clean coal” and CCS as climate change solutions. 

According to the Washington Post, energy and public policy professor Dan Kammen of the University of California at Berkeley believes carbon capture is a distraction from cheaper and already proven ways to reduce carbon dioxide right now.

I recommend the boring Charlie Brown strategy,” Kammen told the Washington Post. “When is the best day to plant a tree? Yesterday. Second best? Today.”

Planting trees and rapidly deploying renewable energy are proven and cost-effective approaches to combating climate change and can be implemented on a global scale today. On the other hand, carbon capture technologies are potentially decades away from having a significant impact on carbon emissions. 

Main image: Wind energy development in the California desert. Credit: Courtesy of Tom Brewster Photography via Bureau of Land ManagementCC BY 2.0

4/29/19 This article was updated to correct the numbers cited from researchers at Swiss University ETH Zurich from million to trillion. 

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