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Carbon capture is a man-made scheme for a man-made problem being used to make pollution worse

The evidence is undeniable. In 1950 total global carbon emissions was 5 billion tonnes, in 2023 it was just over 37 billion.

Of all the scientific “solutions” to deal with our warming planet, carbon capture might only be slightly more viable than the idea held by a select few tech mega-billionaires who think rocketing off to another solar system will allow humans to leave Earth’s challenges behind.

Whether you believe in colonizing distant planets or using technology to cleanse the atmosphere — or in the idea that carbon polluters can capture and store enough of the emissions they create to turn around the chaos they are causing — the clear consensus among scientists around the world is that eliminating the use of carbon in the first place is the only way forward.  

“We're only one planet, and all of us are killing it right now,” Handan Tezel, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Ottawa who researches the benefits of carbon capture, tells The Pointer. 

The evidence is undeniable. In 1950 total global carbon emissions was 5 billion tonnes, in 2023 it was just over 37 billion. Stunningly, while the fossil fuel industry created the energy that drove our economies to dizzying heights, governments collectively only placed the blame on oil and gas companies last year. The price our planet has paid, and will pay, for the devastation caused by corporations that make trillions of dollars by polluting our oceans, lands and air, cannot be measured in numbers. Grief, anxiety and despair cannot be calculated. No price can be put on the loss of our coral reefs and healthy forests.

Even the economic costs are hard to fathom. Recent research has shown one third of the world’s economy will be lost due to the impacts of climate change and the journal Nature in April published data showing that by 2049, just 25 years from now, the impacts of man-made pollution will cost $38 trillion a year, with global median incomes dropping by almost 20 percent as a result.

The figures above are what finally have governments worried.  

At COP 28 in November — 164 years after the greenhouse effect was discovered — for the first time, governments agreed to name fossil fuels as the main driver of anthropogenic climate change and wrote into the UN’s directives a need for rapid transition to renewable energy sources.

The alternatives: either believe carbon polluters who claim they are not a major problem and have their own solutions; or join Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (who think the ability to make money makes them like God) on their first manned mission to Mars. 

One-hundred-ninety eight signatory nations agreed to tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.

But increasingly governments are also buying into the idea pushed by the oil and gas corporations, that carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) — sometimes called carbon capture utilization and storage — can help reach critical climate targets.

The technology is not complicated. It involves containing carbon emissions before they are released into the atmosphere (or even gathering them once they are in the air) sequestering them and then releasing them deep underground to either be absorbed geologically under various strata of rocks and minerals or organically in ways that eventually benefit plant life. 

While the idea of carbon capture and storage is used by fossil fuel companies to lobby governments, begging them not to take harsh measures aimed at ultimately dismantling the industry entirely, environmental organizations argue it is a greenwashing tactic to allow these dirty energy producers to continue operating. 

Some organizations, like the United Nations Environment Programme, have recognized that CCS can be part of the climate solution, but any notion that it is a panacea, is simply false.

According to the World Resources Institute, all current, and future CCS operations which are now in development, represent the capture of 0.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some experts have reported data and projections that show this figure will likely not reach more than 2 to 3 percent in the next 50 years. By then, if carbon production is not dramatically eliminated, these miniscule capture amounts will be even more insignificant, as global temperature increase will make Earth more and more difficult to inhabit.

The reality is that the potential of carbon capture is nowhere near what oil and gas companies claim. But it is increasingly being used as a lobbying tool and justification to the public so polluters can keep polluting.  

While the 2023 Emissions Gap report notes an increasing likelihood of the need to use various carbon capture technologies to help meet a small portion of global reduction targets, these technologies were originally intended to balance out residual emissions that cannot fully be eliminated. With the window to reach the Paris Agreement targets rapidly closing, CCS plans are now being considered by some governments in major oil producing countries such as Canada to offset emissions while allowing carbon intensive production to continue.

Experts say this is a dangerous game. 

Tezel, who is a proponent of the technology and has worked on it for decades, tells The Pointer she believes carbon capture can and should be used to help reach our climate goals, but it cannot overshadow the transition to cleaner fuel sources. 

“I think there is no one solution to this problem,” she says. “Whatever the technologies, we have to invest in all of them incrementally so that we can solve the problem, because it is a huge problem.”

While Canada has long been perceived as a nation with strong environmental policies and a relatively clean energy grid with approximately 83 percent of electricity coming from clean sources, we are now among the worst nations failing to meet signatory reductions commitments. Canada is the 11th biggest overall contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, and the second largest per capita. 

The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) has pointed out in the past that Canada was the worst of all G7 countries in 2021 for emissions reductions and that from 2016 to 2019 our emissions went up by 3.3 percent under Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, compared to a 4.4 to 10.8 percent reduction by five of the other countries in the group and an increase of 0.6 percent by the U.S. over the same period. 

Canada “plans to increase its gas and oil production by 2030,” the CCPI reports on its website. “Canada is among the 20 countries with the largest developed oil and gas reserves. This is not compatible with the 1.5°C target. There are no plans for an oil and gas phase-out, but the government has committed to adopting oil and gas emissions cap regulations. The policy has been delayed, and there are important efforts led by the oil and gas lobby to undermine its stringency and level of ambition.”

Among these intense lobbying efforts by these corporations is the recent push to have carbon capture and storage accepted as a justification for the continued production of oil and gas in Canada—where so-called “green” carbon energy is now being marketed. 

Based on a new analysis done by Environmental Defence, Prime Minister Trudeau’s government provided at least $18.6 billion to the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry in 2023 alone.

“In 2023, as people across Canada faced a fossil fueled affordability crisis and climate disasters continued to ravage the country and the world, the Government of Canada continued providing financial support to an industry that we need to be winding down in order to avoid catastrophic levels of warming,” Julia Levin, associate director of national climate at Environmental Defence, wrote in a press release.

In contrast, the 2023 federal budget allocated $20.9 billion in new funds for growing the green economy. The majority came from tax credits for non-emitting electricity producers including wind, solar, hydro and nuclear. It also provides a credit for natural gas fired electricity production if these providers use abatement techniques such as carbon capture.

According to the Environmental Defence analysis, approximately $1.3 billion was allocated by the federal government for carbon capture projects alone, most of which financed carbon capture technology for a gas plant in Alberta.

In September, the Liberal government released its Carbon Management Strategy which details the impacts of various methods of carbon capture. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), operational carbon capture projects in North America in 2022 contributed 24.7 megatonnes (one million tonnes) of emissions reductions. Planned projects operational by 2030 would increase that number to 161.8 megatonnes per year. 

Currently, North American carbon emissions are approximately 6 billion tonnes a year, so by 2030, about 2.6 percent of carbon emissions alone (this does not include all other greenhouse gasses) would be captured in a best case scenario. 

A tax incentive for CCS was included in the 2024 federal budget. But more and more experts are asking why carbon capture is getting so much attention, and public funding support from unwitting taxpayers, even though it represents such a tiny fraction of emissions reductions at its full potential. The oil and gas industry lobbyists, who are paid millions each year to spin the message, seem to be winning the information war.

Meanwhile, allowing CCS as a justification for continuing to greenlight oil and gas projects in Canada is becoming a perfect example of cutting off our nose to spite our face. By the time CCS even gets to a 2 to 3 percent reduction, the 97 to 98 percent of carbon emissions entering our atmosphere will seal our planet’s fate, as we create our own conditions for an increasingly dire future. Temperatures will make life unlivable. Changing ocean dynamics will make weather patterns chaotic, and the costs for the toll will plunge economies into a tailspin—all because governments like Canada’s refuse to stand up to oil and gas companies.   

CCS refers to a variety of technologies including directly pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, known as direct air capture (DAC). 

According to Natural Resources Canada, there are currently eight CCS projects in operation in Canada.

While DAC projects could be used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere without anything in return, Tezel says many are used to provide carbon credits to fossil fuel companies or other emitting industries.

“Climateworks is a company who captures carbon dioxide directly from ambient air. And then they sell the carbon credits to Audi because they sell cars, and then those cars pollute the environment when they burn fossil fuels. And they cannot really capture it because they're all over the place.” 

While carbon capture projects have only recently begun to materialize, the technology has been around much longer. Tezel has been working at the University of Ottawa for over 35 years, and since she began, has been studying the concept. 

“It's been going on for a long time. But it's more maturing now and people are learning more about it. And the prices are getting lower, so it's affordable now,” she says. “But this has been going on within the science for a very long time.”

According to the International Energy Agency, introducing carbon capture technologies to an energy plant only adds approximately 10 percent to the cost.

The first commercial scale CCS plant in the world opened in Canada in 2014. The $1.3 billion dollar project equipped the Boundary Dam coal power plant in Saskatchewan with CCS technology that promised to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent, arguing that coal power could be part of the clean energy transition. These figures were widely questioned, and coal production has since been dramatically reduced, or stopped across Canada. Ontario introduced legislation banning coal-fired electricity production two decades ago, and the last such plant was shut down ten years ago in Thunder Bay.

China, India, the United States and Japan are responsible for more than three quarters of the world’s coal production, but increasingly, pressure is being put on governments to follow in the footsteps of jurisdictions like Ontario. The main motivation for the move by the province was the terrible air quality (with “smog days” becoming normal in the summer) that had developed across much of southern Ontario 25 years ago and alarming rates of reported medical problems linked to the worsening pollution, which placed the GTA at the top of lists ranking the poorest air quality in North America. 

Now, oil and gas companies are claiming the worsening effects of their pollution can be offset by carbon capture. 

Preliminary analysis has shown CCS projects may not be as efficient as claimed. According to Environmental Defence, between 2000 and 2020, Canada has spent a minimum of $5.8 billion subsidizing CCS which has led to a woeful capture rate of less than four megatonnes, or 0.5 percent of Canada’s yearly emissions, and the captured carbon from Canada’s CCS projects is often used to further enhance oil production. These CCS projects also do not address downstream use of the oil and gas that is produced.

This is where DAC projects can be useful. Tezel is currently spearheading a project to capture carbon from ambient air to use it for greenhouses. This has the added benefit of aiding food production without contributing to more ecological decline.

“I'm trying to do my share to help the environment and help the greenhouses be more sustainable,” she says. “Everybody has to put in.”

Tezel says our governments have to be willing to shoulder the costs of clean energy solutions. In the past decade, the costs of weather-related disasters have amounted to about five to six percent of Canada’s annual GDP growth, according to the Canadian Climate Institute. The costs of flood damage to homes could increase from $60 million annually to over $300 million annually by mid-century. By the end of the century, ground level ozone could result in over a quarter of a million people a decade being hospitalized, costing around $250 billion.

“You have to make investments in all of these technologies and pay for it, unfortunately, because not doing anything we're paying for it,” she says. “We're having floods all over the place. We're having tornadoes in places where we haven't even heard about tornadoes and one way or another, you're paying for it.”

Tezel wants to see a wide range of investments to sustain a range of solutions to the climate crisis. 

“I don't think we can solve this problem by only focusing on one or two methodologies, you have to work on multiple solutions, because there are multiple scenarios that we can help the environment with.” 

Environmental organizations have expressed concern with carbon capture due to underground storage which has the potential to cause seismic disruptions. While no cases have been documented due to CCS, similar occurrences have stemmed from oil fracking and wastewater disposal.

Another concern in Ontario is the expansion of gas alongside justifications that emissions can be captured.

In 2017, oil and gas made up just four percent of Ontario’s electricity grid. By 2022, the figure reached 10.4 percent. In the six years the Doug Ford PC government has been in power, it has more than doubled gas supply for electricity production and failed to create any new renewable energy contracts.

As they continue to ramp up natural gas production, emissions from these sources are expected to increase 400 percent, compared to 2017 levels, by 2030 and almost 800 percent by 2040.

“Electric cars, or electric buses working in the cities, that's great. You're not polluting in the city, but [how] are you producing this electricity? That's what you have to focus on and it has to be clean technology,” Tezel says.

Carbon capture can be used, she says, but it should not overshadow the transition to clean energy sources.

“[W]e have all of the solutions.”

The Pointer / Local Journalism Initiative


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