After EU policymakers’ disenchantment with biofuels (see EurActiv: MEPs seek reduced biofuel commitments), it is time to find the new “silver bullet” to tackle the climate and energy crisis. During two conferences held in Brussels this week, lobbyists for carbon capture and storage (CCS) pulled out all the stops to convince us that governments should invest big time to speedily develop this “inevitable” solution. The question is: is it inevitable and is it a solution or a false hope?
During the roundtable organised by Friends of Europe moderator Giles Merritt tried to focus on the question “who will pay?” (business or the public sector, so basically us the taxpayers) and “how much will it cost?”. I heard no clear answers on both questions.
With an over-representation from pro-CCS speakers (Shell and BP top managers, the Hydro-sponsored NGO Bellona Foundation, speakers of the EU Technology Platform for Zero Emission Fossil Fuel Power Plants – ZEP for short - and the UK Carbon and Storage Association), the main message of the roundtable was loud and clear: fossil fuels (and in particular coal) are the future and CCS will have to clean up the mess so that we can continue to live our current lifestyles. “I hate CCS” said European Parliament rapporteur Chris Davies, “but I hate coal even more”.
No big arguments of course about the coming oil, gas and coal peaks or the environmental uncertainties surrounding CCS (more water use, less efficient power plants, so even more coal use, and the dangers of stored CO2 leakage in the future) . A lonely Greenpeace speaker seemed to be a bit overwhelmed by the heavy fire from his other speakers and was therefore not really capable to highlight enough the arguments of the excellent report the environmental organisation published recently (BTW I disagree with this report’s optimism about the potential of renewable energy but that’s for another blog post).
Although all of the CCS panelists called upon the EU and member states to open their purses for big financial support, none was willing to put an exact figure on how much governments would have to put up for the 10 to 12 demonstration plants which need to be built asap if CCS needs to be really commercially operational by 2020. In that context, a very ideological and neo-liberal intervention by a Deutsche Bank speaker in favour of letting the “pure free market” deal with climate change looked a bit out of touch with reality. He also probably never read Nick Stern’s report ;).
As I mentioned during one of my own interventions, I felt that the whole argumentation used by the CCS groupies was built on two fatalisms: the China fatalism and the coal fatalism. Let’s have a closer look at them. “China is building two new coal power plants per week so we need CCS as soon as possible”. Good point, only, by the time CCS will be commercially available (2020) China will already have built around 5000 extra plants (and yes they might be “CCS-ready”, but that phrase is no more than PR spin – in most cases it means that some terrain is left for use later). Moreover, it is exactly our CCS rhetoric which will convince the Chinese that they can continue to construct these plants even if their environment is already suffering heavily as a result. The Chinese BTW will be one of the biggest losers of climate chaos.
And then there is the abundant and cheap coal which we will “inevitably” use when the lights start going out or when we do not get enough oil or oil becomes too expensive. Yes, another good argument for CCS. Problem here is: coal is no longer that cheap and the reserves (as with oil) are scandalously overestimated (see 2007 JRC report and a study by the German Energy Watch). Should we really invest billions in technology which uses rapidly declining energy reserves?
The best form of carbon sequestration already exists: just leave the coal (and the CO2) in the Earth!
CCS is basically a very smart technology fix promoted by the oil, gas and coal industries to extend the era of fossil fuels. If we are indeed “addicted to oil” (George W. Bush), we should get off of it as soon as possible, not develop new medicines to make sure marihuana smokers can safely move to heroin. We need a “fossil fuel cold turkey”.
That said (here comes my fantastic U-turn :)), I am also realistic and I fear that coal will indeed be used because our “overshoot” societies will postpone the really “inevitable” (big lifestyle and distribution changes) until it is too late. Look at how our “spoiled” societies are already protesting against the high oil prices. Imagine what will happen when prices go to 200 or more per barrel. Riots in the streets. Who really thinks our elections-driven political systems will be able to deal with these developments?
So here are my recommendations to policymakers:
- establish a moratorium on new coal power plants until CCS is ready;
- start a phase-out plan for old coal power plants;
- put pressure on China (and other BRICS) to stop building coal plants and help them move to other energy solutions fast;
- provide 100% financial coverage of the costs of 10 demonstration plants but invest at the same time 5 times more in sustainable energy solutions (decentralised energy systems, efficiency, renewables) – I know this will cost a lot but compared to other costs (resource wars, failed states, climate chaos) it will be peanuts;
- commit that we will not use CCS when it is ready if we see within the next ten years that other innovations and technology breakthroughs can put us on a more sustainable zero-fossil-fuel path. So develop CCS but only use it when all other options fail to deliver.
Most importantly: stop the denial and start telling people to hard truths about the unsustainability of our Western lifestyles even if they will not thank you for it. This is called REAL climate and energy leadership!